“Just What In The Hell Has Gone Wrong Here Anyhow?” Woody Guthrie and the American Dream

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He once signed himself with a drawing of a smoking pistol and the words “a desperate man, Woody Guthrie.” A joke, maybe, but as always with him, beneath that there was the driven man with a mission that could never quite be fulfilled—because his country was itself unfulfilled. So he had to try to content himself with the conviction that his words were therapeutic, that they made a difference in the lives of those whose words he borrowed: “These songs say something about our hard traveling, something about our hard luck, our hard get-by, but the songs say we’ll come through all these in pretty good shape, and we’ll be all right.…”

And though the therapy of such songs was meant for the needy, plainly too it was meant for all America. These were not the faked songs of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley with their prepackaged numbers about “champagne for two and moon over Miami.” They were instead the real history of America, showing us the truth of ourselves, our squandering of precious human resources, the wasting of the American opportunity. Troubled, troublesome, a dealer in our common troubles, Woody Guthrie was still at last a classic American optimist, and it is just possible that the Guthrie revival we are now witnessing is a part of the long, slow process by which Americans assent to the best that is in us; a sign that we too are restless with the gap between our promises and our performance.

If this is in fact what nerves the Guthrie boom, it will be good: good for his memory, better for us. “The proof of the poet,” Whitman wrote, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” And with Woody Guthrie that might also be the proof of the country.