October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
We seem to be in the midst of a Woody Guthrie boom. Its crest was the 1976 film Bound for Glory , which attracted considerable critical attention before it went out into shopping center cinemas across the land. Two collections of Guthrie’s fugitive writings are now in circulation, and there is a handsome, spanking new Woody Guthrie Songbook , as well as two mass market editions of the autobiographical work on which the film was based and the first publication of a work he wrote more than thirty years ago, Seeds of Man . Record bins are amply stocked with “—— Sings Woody Guthrie,” and with reissues of his own recordings long unavailable.
The subject of this boom was a tough, troubled, weedy little man with survival instincts as strong as the iron grass and mesquite of his native Oklahoma and Texas. He was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 into what passed then and there for middle-class circumstances, but he grew up in an atmosphere of familial misfortune and disintegration tallying that of the region as a whole. In his teens he followed his father down to the high plains of Texas and there began a career as a wandering minstrel that took him through most of the states of the Union, hundreds of bars, halls, recording studios, street corners, hobo camps, wartime troopships. As Guthrie summarized it in the early forties:
“[I] sung along the boweries of fortytwo states; Reno Avenue in Oklahoma City, Lower Pike Street in Seattle, the jury table in Santa Fe; the Hooversvilles on the flea-bit rims of your city’s garbage dump. I sung in the camps called ‘Little Mexico,’ on the dirty edge of California’s green pastures. I sung on the gravel barges of the East Coast and along New York’s Bowery watching the cops chase the bay-rum drinkers. I curved along the bend of the Gulf of Mexico and sung with the tars and salts in Port Arthur, the oilers and greasers in Texas City, the marijuana smokers in the flop town in Houston. I trailed the fairs and rodeos all over Northern California, Grass Valley, Nevada City; I trailed the apricots and peaches around Marysville.… Everywhere I went I thro wed my hat down in the floor and sung for my tips.”
The road ended in hospitals, where he spent almost all of his last fifteen years gripped in the twisted fingers of the incurable, hereditary Huntington’s Disease. When he died in 1967 he was legendary among the performers and consumers who made up the “folk movement” of the sixties. In those last years of enforced silence and involuntary muscular activity, through the long days of waiting, a trickle of visitors came to his bedside: the three children of his last family, led by his second wife, Marjorie; admiring performers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan; professional writers and folklorists. And out of that medicinal room, in that time of a new radicalism, Woody Guthrie was made into a symbol of folk protest as he had once himself sought to be in the proletarian thirties and early forties.
That he is now the fit subject of popularization on a far wider scale suggests, among other things, that the political stink of radicalism no longer clings to his name, and that the process of time that transforms all radicals into patriots and all revolutions into glorious blows for human liberty has been at work here.
Few know and fewer care now that Guthrie wrote some communistic journalism, that he came to accept the notion that America was in the clutches of a Wall Street-inspired conspiracy against working people, or that he looked forward to the total reorganization of American society as it was then (and now) and to the birth of a new socialistic one out of it.
They are right not to care about Guthrie’s engagement in formal politics: he was so bad a politician, so hopelessly naive, so radically individual, that even the Communist party wouldn’t have him—though he would have had them. In his better moments he knew this, too: “I just think how I think is right and let you do the same. I don’t care what party believes it or any part of it. I didn’t never want to be no politician, they’s too many crooked ones without me.”
And so what remains is the perdurable Guthrie, the person beyond politics and political uses. This is the quintessentially American Woody Guthrie who was almost mystically endowed with a profound understanding of the spirit of this land and whose life and work expressed a fierce and steady devotion to America’s promise as a nation founded on the belief in the dignity and divinity of each of us.
To see Guthrie in this way-culturally rather than merely politically-is to see him as an archetypal American who embodied much of our common history with all its troubles and thwarted excellences. And seeing him this way we can also see that he belongs to one of our most honorable traditions: those artists who have taken America seriously. I mean those whose lines and syllables are public acts insisting upon the very best from us, “necessary affirmations” (as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called them) of the worth and dignity of all persons and of this country as uniquely fitted to allow their expression. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams come first to mind here, and Woody Guthrie takes his place among them as easily and naturally as the colors, smells, and rhythms of our common life once sprang from his lips and fingers.
Guthrie knew all about booms. He knew firsthand their terrible ephemerality, for he had seen his home town of Okemah stretch and collapse like an accordion in an oil boom at the beginning of the twenties.
Long before, this had been the roaming territory of the Wichita and Comanche tribes. Later it became part of the dumping ground for tribes dispossessed elsewhere. And still later it was a part of the Creek reservation until at last it fell into white hands. “Okemah” in Creek means “town on a hill,” and a rail junction established there in the first years of this century put a small dot on the region’s map.
Guthrie’s family was much like the rest—whites pouring into newly opened territory, southward out of Kansas, northward out of Texas. His maternal grandmother had been a log cabin schoolteacher when what became Okfuskee County was still Indian Territory. His father, Charlie, had been a cowboy and then a store clerk in Bell County, Texas. In Oklahoma he branched out into real-estate speculation, stockbreeding, and politics, while his wife Nora was giving him five children. If fortune had been otherwise, it is possible that the Guthries would be regarded today as one of the state’s founding families.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was the third of those five children, raised in his earliest years amidst the trappings of his father’s hectic and precarious success in a town small enough that “on your way to the post office, you’d nod and speak to so many friends that your neck would be rubbed raw.”
There was a minor key here, though, the sound of a sadness that coursed through the noise of the family’s expanding prosperity. It was in his mother, in her voice, in those old tragic ballads she sang out of her Scotch-Irish background. It was as if even in its brief days of happiness the doom and dissolution of the family were prefigured in these sung narratives of love and love’s end; just as in the high boom days about to come to the town the sure signs of collapse could have been read.
One day the family’s pleasant sevenroom house burned to the ground and they all heard in the stillness that minor key. They had to move to the tail end of town to an older house, the dank walls of which reflected the change. And there was more of the same to come, swiftly now, as though something had been loosed that could never again be brought together. Like a runner badly bumped off stride Charlie Guthrie scrambled madly to keep his balance, all the while falling farther behind. There was a cyclone that tore this older house to pieces. And then the death by fire of Woody’s older sister, Clara. And bad land gambles that quickly dissipated all of Charlie’s holdings. And finally the oil boom that instantly transformed Okemah into a jungle of main-chancers in yet another microcosmic recapitulation of our frontier heritage.
First there came the rig builders, Guthrie wrote, “cement men, carpenters, teamskinners, wild tribes of horse traders and gypsy wagons loaded full, and the wheels breaking down; crooked gamblers, pimps, whores, dope fiends, and peddlers, stray musicians and street singers, preachers cussing about love and begging for tips on the street corners, Indians in dirty loud clothes chanting along the sidewalks with their kids crawling and playing in the filth and grime underfoot. People elbowed up and down the streets like a flood on the Canadian, and us kids would run and jump right in the big middle of the crowds, and let them sort of push us along a block or so, and play like we was floating down stream. Thousands of folks come to town to work, eat, sleep, celebrate, pray, cry, sing, talk, argue, and fight with the older settlers.” The town’s population exploded from a couple of thousand to fifteen thousand and the smell and taste of oil and fast money filled the air.
But through it all, the Guthries did not prosper. The sadness in Nora Guthrie had by now manifested itself in acts of terrible, random destructiveness, flinging crockery and furniture against the walls, moaning, frothing at the mouth. The children cowered in the corners, unwitting witnesses to the power of that same Huntington’s Disease that would one day take the small boy who watched now. Later he wrote: “I hate a hundred times more to describe my own mother in any such words as these. You hate to read about a mother described in any such words as these. I know. I understand you. I hope you can understand me, for it must be broke down and said.” When she had calmed again, the children would pick up the pieces and straighten the rooms so that when Charlie Guthrie dragged himself home at evening after another defeated day in the boom race things would look almost normal.
In 1923 in the midst of the boom the family had to admit defeat. Charlie had lost it all by now and could not even pay the rent on their house. They moved out to Oklahoma City, and when they returned to Okemah a year later the boom was over and the town had settled back to tough it out as a tiny way station in the midst of chronic depression.
They took up life here again with those others stranded in the now shriveled “town on a hill” with the wind rising and the sandy soil beginning to swirl about the abandoned oil works and the survivor sumac and cottonwood and the dry, beaten pastures. Charlie caught part of another boom, belatedly come to these rural Southwestern stretches. Now he sold auto license tags for the state, and for a moment things looked up. But then again: home fire, this time even more catastrophic. Guthrie hinted in Bound for Glory that his mother may have involuntarily set it. However it happened, Charlie Guthrie was terribly blistered in trying to put it out, and when the last had been extinguished, Nora Guthrie was well on her train-bound way to the state asylum at Norman on a one-way ticket.
Charlie went to convalesce with a sister in Texas while Woody, now thirteen, and his older brother Roy stayed on in Okemah. Mostly Woody lived by himself for two years in various abandoned buildings. In a hand-to-mouth existence he picked up junk and sold it to buy his meals. In those summers of 1928 and 1929 he hit roads out of town for what work he could find, hoeing figs, picking grapes, working his way as far south as the wharfed and furbelowed town of Galveston. Now in these hot days he carried a harmonica on his travels and sang the old ballads Nora had once sung while he brushed her hair in the precious calm. And he began also to pick up other songs, the songs of traveling, working, hard-luck America: blues, jig tunes, Indian shouts, truck driver company-keepers.
At the end of the summer of 1929 he decided to join his father again in another oil boom town, Pampa, Texas. Behind him he left apparently little besides the faded, almost anonymous entry in The Creekehoma , the high-school yearbook. Beneath a somber, too-old face, a white shirt and bow tie, the legend: “Woodrow Guthrie, Panther Staff ’28, Publication Club ’29, Glee Club ’29.”
Standing on Okemah’s Main Street in an early morning haze with a hot Southwestern sun still in the offing across the flats below, it is easy to see this town as it was before the boom and after. There is still life here, and one could watch Okemah waking to its hard and homely tasks much like many another town west of the Mississippi, the gaggle of pick-ups parked at the preferred breakfast spot, a few figures paused on sidewalks to read newspaper headlines, and a bunch of kids with towels and swim suits gathering outside the YMCA. Only a water tower above the flat roofs confers singularity on Okemah, for it announces that this was the “Home of Woody Guthrie.”
Indeed it was. And despite the fact that Guthrie left here even before finishing high school, he never ceased to regard it as home. Yet out here far from the media blitz, the record stores and book shops, there is still some genuine hostility to the poet. They have not entirely forgotten his subsequent leftist activities, and the sign on the water tower was put up there only over opposition. For the losers in this local skirmish Guthrie was “no good,” a troublemaker, a Communist, so the sight of the water tower must be a daily offense.
Guthrie often admitted that he and trouble traveled together, but almost as often he insisted that he didn’t cause the troubles he sang about but merely called attention to them. As he once wrote of crickets:
“Crickets don’t eat houses down. Crickets just hang around to sing that the damn thing’s a falling down. He’ll be there a long time singing about it.…
“Then the other bugs that really brought the house down will run off somewhere and they’ll say, Look at that god damn cricket, he was there all of th’ time! He’s th’ one! Get ‘im! He lives in rot an’ filth all of th’ time! He causes it! He believes in it! He spreads it around! Get that bastardly son of a bitch! And the cricket don’t want to live nowheres else. He had to stay on the job and holler and sing that the house was rotting down. He had to stay.”
So there is this ambivalent situation here: the artist’s love of a place he left early and that place’s mingled pride and anger that he was ever there at all. There is a gravestone for him in the local cemetery, but the clay beneath it is empty. Guthrie’s ashes were scattered over other lands and waters. And there is the house on the southern fringe of town where the Guthrie family once lived until driven out by the cyclone. Some years ago a local businessman purchased it to turn it into a memorial of some kind. An amiable gent I asked for directions to it seemed innocent of any resentment toward another of the Guthrie pilgrims who stops here on the way to somewhere else.
But the house itself reinforces the local ambivalence: it is a crumbling, rotting wreck, all but hidden even on its hilltop by grasses, tangled creepers, fallen tree trunks. Its mold-green roof sags earthward, its porch from which the boy looked out on all there was to see of Oklahoma is gone, and the east wall is braced by poles that are losing the slow battle. As Marjorie Guthrie told me, the family and friends remain undecided as to what to do with it, and the cause of their indecision is the community hostility. Pete Seeger wants to turn it into a sort of way station for wandering young people. But, she said, her son ArIo, young enough to have a different sense of things, feels this probably would not work because of local attitudes toward “hippies.”
So here it sits and settles. Inside, its shaky rooms smell of stale urine, and they are littered with the random, cast-away evidence that, memorial or no, this is a youth hang-out. Slogans on the ruined, peeling walls are about equally divided between allegiance to the symbol of Guthrie and to male pubescent fantasies of the flesh. From the high east windows you can gaze past vines and leaves down onto the flats that are dotted with agricultural outbuildings and the bobbing, hobbyhorse shapes of oil derricks.
On the land just back of the house Russell Bradley lives surrounded by his neat vegetable patch on which he raises “abundant crops.” We talked some through the vines of his pole beans, and he mentioned the occasional inconvenience of living next to the old homestead.
“Some that comes here respects me and some don’t,” he said. “Why, there was a bunch through here Sunday: tromped all over my tomaters.”
But there is no resentment of Guthrie himself. “Hell,” said Bradley, “I lived through that Depression. If I’d a had a guitar and could sing, I’d a done anything for a quarter.”
On the high Texas plains, Guthrie and the shattered remnants of his family became indistinguishable from the other Dust Bowl refugees who now began to drift before the winds, the dust storms, and the general economic blight that had overspread the nation.
The young man, his father, and his uncle Jeff tried one thing after another—clerking, police work, prospecting—in attempts to sink roots deep enough to withstand this weather. They failed, and it might be said that Okemah was the last and only home Woody Guthrie ever had, miserable and tragic as it so often was. For the rest of his life he was a wanderer, by necessity and by vocational choice. For here in Texas Guthrie discovered his career as a hardtraveling troubador.
From his uncle he learned to play guitar, and together they began to play country dances, rodeos, and carnivals. They sang for a while on a tiny, low-watt radio station. But Guthrie was different from the other busking singers and players who answered the modest needs of these hardhit people. He was different because he saw in their straitened, often pathetic, lives, in these least little entertainments they could allow themselves, his own calling. It amounted to nothing less than a religious conviction that he was meant to sing these people’s story, to sing to them, and to follow them wherever they went. More than this, the young man sensed that in these people lay the paradoxical essence of this country: this vast land with its mute, geophysical promises of freedom, equality, and plenty, its historic commitment to these same, and the dispossessed workers who stumbled and drifted about over its surfaces in search of the fulfillment of these promises. Somehow, in a way that must always elude accurate description, the spirit of the land and the plight of the common people entered into Guthrie and consumed him. It made him restless, cantankerous, moody, impossible to live with. It also made him inexhaustibly generous of himself, and it gave an unimpeachable power and authenticity to his art.
Unlearned in any formal sense, Guthrie before attaining his majority had mastered his lands and times in a deep, intuitive way. During the great intellectual ferment a century before the Dust Bowl, Emerson and Thoreau had noted the critical national need for such knowledge of America and for voices that could sing it. In the prim environs of Concord these men had divined a hollowness of heart beneath the often hysterical pretensions to national greatness, a hollowness that bespoke the unrealized ideals of the land and its people. Both thought that only someone with the imaginative power to incorporate the national history and make it his own could successfully articulate the problem and in doing so remind Americans of what this country was truly meant to be. Thoreau had tried this in Walden . Emerson guessed it might have to be the work of some unknown folk singer whose roots were sunk in the common soil.
Spare and straight and with still a whisper of Puritanism about him, Emerson had a courageous and daring imagination. In “The Poet” he dared to imagine a singer so close to the primitive that his language would bud from the earth in natural images, a singer with heart and genitals as well as head and brain. The picture language of this singer would be a song of freedom, of the inviolable sanctity of the individual conscience, and of the divinity within. America was itself the greatest poem, as yet unsung because these promises were as yet unrealized.
The singer as Emerson imagined him was thus both articulator of the national myth and a subversive, both sponsor of the culture and antagonist of it; in either role, he would be beyond mere patriotism. As he would sing the promise of America he would remind Americans unpleasantly of national deceits and shams, of the shabby political betrayals of the great myth, of the great land that had given birth to it.
Emerson was, of course, far in advance of his time—and still may be of ours-and when he dared to speak of the divine spark within each person, the Harvard Divinity School excused him for nearly thirty years from further guest appearances.
Whitman also was too far ahead—in part because he had read his Emerson and taken it much to heart. He was so much what the master had imagined, with his freedom-bent lines, his incorporation of geography, his unabashed physicality, that at first Emerson tried to tone down this powerhouse singer out of nowhere and then dissociated himself from Whitman forever. For despite Whitman’s flagwaving, Fourth-of-July rhetoric, he really was that subversive myth-maker Emerson had called for. His songs were acts in history, his vision one that spoke of old dreams conveniently forgotten in the broad rush of expansionist America, dreams drowned by the roar of finance capitalism, railroads, steam whistles.
“This,” Whitman wrote, “is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or numbers of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families … dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
This is Guthrie to a dot. And clearly there is much in this program that went against the American grain as it had developed. Which is probably why Whitman never found such a kindred artistic soul in his own lifetime, and after a couple of decades of looking for a Woody Guthrie, he had to admit it:
“I say I have not seen a single writer, artist, lecturer, or what not, that has confronted the voiceless but ever erect and active, pervading, underlying will and typic aspiration of the land, in a spirit kindred to itself. Do you call these genteel little creatures American poets? Do you term that perpetual, pistareen, paste-pot work American art… ? I think I hear, echoed as from some mountain-top afar in the west, the scornful laugh of the Genius of these States.”
I do not know just how much of this great predecessor Guthrie read, but his identification with the voiceless poor, his unwearied insistence upon the myth of America, clearly predates knowledge of Whitman and goes deeper than any book. “Books,” he once observed, “is all right. Par as books go, but as far as they go, they still don’t go far enough.” If we can trust his two autobiographical works, Bound for Glory and Seeds of Man (“lifebound novels,” he called them, “both real and unreal”), Guthrie became like Whitman a subversive myth-speaker because he had witnessed the greatness of heart of American people in travail, deprivation, and bewilderment. And he saw these people in a huge, fecund landscape that still beckoned with dreams of dignity, justice, and plenitude.
He watched the beginnings of the Dust Bowl, first in Okemah and then in Texas, the uprooting of families, the collapse of farms. And on a prospecting trip into the Big Bend wilderness on the Texas-Mexico border he encountered endemic poverty that would outlast any dust storm. Here he saw again and anew the land, various, rich even in these spiky, rocky défiles and bottoms, and the people who somehow could not lay their hands on the naked necessities. He heard death underneath the unmuffled roar of trucks carting wetbacks to stoop labor and saw terror in the eyes of parentless children. He heard also the inexhaustible beauty of the human spirit in the music of the people’s stray, casual talk and laughter. He learned, also, of the folly of ownership of land and that his own lust for the riches of a lost silver mine was surely the curse that had blighted the myth he was then learning and that he would subsequently sing. As he remembered it later:
“And there on the Texas plains right in the center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about.…
“I never did make up many songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky, but at first it was funny songs of what all’s wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in that country was thinking. And this has held me ever since.”
This did hold him, a spellbound captive, and he held to it until the early fifties, after which he was unable to hold to anything. It was indeed the one great love of his life, transcending wives, children, friends, all the natural comforts of home, security, a steady job, lucrative recording contracts.
Perhaps only Marjorie Guthrie, his second wife and the one who cared for him all through those last years, really understood this. Speaking of that first wife Guthrie had married in Pampa and later left behind, she told me, “I’m sure if I’d been the one left behind out there, I wouldn’t have understood. As a young mother, I’m sure I wouldn’t have known why Woody had to travel. But when we met [in 1940 in New York] I was older, and since I had a creative life of my own, I could understand his. I always thought of him as going to something rather than away from something.”
But undoubtedly it was very hard to understand this driven man, and she remembered once trying to console one of the daughters of that Texas marriage. Sitting in the dark on the edge of the girl’s bed, Marjorie had told her that even if Woody wasn’t a very good father to her, he was a very important person. Important because he was trying to make America a better place for all children. If this sounds sophistical to us, it may be because we cannot take Guthrie’s commitment as seriously as he did; and it might even mean that we do not take the American promise as seriously as he did.
Forty years ago Guthrie hit the “long lonesome” out of the Texas Dust Bowl for what he and the other refugees mockingly referred to as the “ole Peach Bowl,” California’s “Garden of Eden.” Behind him he left his young wife Mary and their two girls, Gwendellyn Gail and Sue. Like a great many other men of that time his plan was to find work and make enough money to send for the family—though surely other needs were mixed in here as well.
The experience of migration was an impressive one, tallying with those he had had as a drifter and down-and-outer in Okemah, Pampa, and the Big Bend country. Here again on the farthest coast was the American paradox: border patrols as if these American refugees were aliens; fruit and vegetables rotting on the ground or dumped in refuse pits, rather than given to the hungry; jungle camps growing typhoid, desperation, and debt; and at the same time radio stations and newspapers willing to pay good money to someone who could describe all this. And Guthrie could, beginning with an outraged question, “Just what in the hell has gone wrong here anyhow?” but then passing on to songs where the love and the promise are bitterly juxtaposed with the impoverished realities just as the workers themselves were juxtaposed with the green fertility of the land and the unattainable alabaster sectors of the cities.
There were more than 200,000 refugees in the state in the last years of the thirties, and so there was a market of sorts for artists who could sing and play their music. Guthrie got a job singing on KFVD in Los Angeles and then sent for Mary and the girls. A third child, Bill Rogers, was born to them out there.
By then, Guthrie was on the road again: he spent most of his time in California singing for the migrants in their jungle camps, in the federal work camps, and helping to organize cannery and factory workers. Here began his association with the Communist party. He sang for the party, wrote columns for party publications, and espoused party programs over the air. It is a measure of the times that his fame as a singer dates from precisely this period, and while on KFVD he received more than twenty thousand letters in two years, many of them with crumpled bills in them to help keep him on the air. At some point he apparently tried officially to join the party but was rejected. Perhaps party bureaucrats saw that no political structure could ever hope to contain this natural force. Thereafter, though his solutions to social ills remained radical, Guthrie was entirely free of identification with any specific political movement.
Like all folk geniuses (and many a formally trained one as well) Guthrie was a profligate artist. At his best he is incomparable and elsewhere best ignored. But out of this period of the late thirties and on through the following decade he produced a remarkable body of song, both musical and written. Ballads of the Dust Bowl and songs of the refugees: “Talking Dust Bowl,” “Dust Storm Disaster,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” “Do Re Mi,” “Going Down This Road,” “Deportee.” Songs of work like the twenty-six he spun while watching the Grand Coulee Dam project get started. Songs of play like his delightful children’s songs. And the Joad ballads drawn from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (“Rapes of Graft,” as Guthrie had it). Plus the two large autobiographical books.
By the time he had completed Seeds of Man he was as acclimated to New York as he would ever be. He had gone there in 1940 in response to a letter from an actor friend of California days, Will Geer, who was playing on Broadway in Tobacco Road . The letter said there was more work and more action in New York, and so once again he left Mary and the children behind, this time with her family in Texas. Within a year Guthrie had divorced her and married Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham. These two small, intense people remained connected, especially in spirit, until the end of Guthrie’s life.
At first they shared a room so tiny that when the bed was unfolded there was no unoccupied space. Except in one corner. There where the walls made an “L” was a triangular desk with bulletin-board material above it. And there the troubador wrote. At night when Marjorie returned home from teaching dance they would take turns reading to each other the reams that he had spun out of the deprivations of the past, the inequities of the present.
Through such writings but more through his singing and recordings Guthrie now became an important part of that odd but vital New York subculture of folk musicians that included at one time or another Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Josh White, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and Jean Ritchie. Alan Lomax affixed the stamp of official recognition on him through extensive recordings for the Library of Congress, and Victor released his album of Dust Bowl ballads. The sound Guthrie got into these records was that of the high winds and long roads of the great outback far beyond New York, but they did much to put him securely on the national entertainment map. This was an ambiguous situation for Guthrie, and to the end of his career he remained uncomfortable with it: he thought of himself as more than an entertainer and conceived of his mission as more selfless than a career. He was an entertainer, though, and he did fitfully pursue an entertainer’s career, but he remained one of the entertainment industry’s most unpredictable and ornery captives, and his periodic “escapes” became part of the Guthrie legend.
Perhaps only slightly less important to his growing popularity was his work with the Almanac Singers, a storied group that served as the model for subsequent groups, from the Weavers to the New Christie Minstrels to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. The Almanacs thought of themselves as traveling agents in the cause of social reconstruction, and basing themselves in New York’s Greenwich Village, they toured the states, singing for union benefits and political rallies. As the war drew closer, their energies turned toward it, and they sang against fascism, both foreign and home-grown.
Guthrie continued this work on his own after the outbreak of war. He was now beamed to troops overseas by the Office of War Information, and his guitar had a sign on it that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” After his enlistment in the Merchant Marine, the fascists, for their part, did their best to kill him ;on two of his convoy trips across the Atlantic his ships were torpedoed.
Guthrie survived, and by the time the war was over he had become a national figure, not nearly of the stature of Bing Crosby, say, but still one with a steady following of those who either assented to his vision of a better America or who merely cottoned to his talent and his twangy voice. And now the bitterest of ironies: it was at this time of his life that the disease he had carried within him like a time bomb chose to express itself. In the late forties, he developed a strange, lopsided walk, and his speech occasionally slurred. He had been a hard drinker for much of his life, and the symptoms were attributed to alcoholism. Marjorie Guthrie, who now directs the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease out of a small office in New York City, remembers with understandable regret that “We just didn’t know enough about the disease in those days. It was only in retrospect many years later that I could see that what was happening to him had nothing to do with his drinking.” For several years, as the disease continued the agonizingly slow deterioration of his nervous system, Guthrie signed himself in and out of hospitals as an alcoholic. His problem was not correctly diagnosed until, Marjorie recalls, 1954, and by then it was too late to do what little could have been done to delay the inevitable. In 1965 he was transferred from Brooklyn State Hospital to Creedmore State Hospital on Long Island. He never came out again.
In 1966—in the hospital—he was presented with the annual Conservation Service Award by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. “Yours was not a passing comment on the beauties of nature,” Udall wrote in the citation, “but a living, breathing, singing force in our struggle to use our land and save it, too.”
On October 3, 1967, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie died.
Throughout that short and crowded life, in whatever medium or setting—between the covers of books, the lines of newspaper columns, over the radio, or in bars or union halls—Guthrie’s intention was quite literally to sing for the silent ones. He had listened long and well to their talk, the accents, rhythms, and themes that fell casually from their lips and were lost. Their gift of spirit, he thought, was in their talk, and that talk put pictures in the poet’s mind. Listening to a tubercular drifter’s sandy, broken voice on some swirling Tucson street corner, “Lots of things went through your mind when he talked-wheat stems and empty cotton stalks, burnt corn, and eroded farm land.”
These were the dark, faceless, shifting “strangers” seen at the edges of the cities, along the tracks and highways, in the fields. He sang them, their fractured narrative: gone with the seasons and the wind. Under a bridge out of the hard rain, an anonymous bindle stiff once shared his blanket with the minstrel but was gone in the morning before Guthrie ever saw his face or heard his name. “Tell me, / What were their names, tell me, what were their names,” he sang in “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”
I think here of an anecdote told by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova out of the years of the Stalinist purges when she and other mothers and wives would wait day on day outside the gates of the prisons for word of those within. Once in that blue cold a woman recognized her and whispered a question in her ear: “Can you describe this?” And Akhmatova answered her, “Yes, I can.”
This then was Woody’s gift: to be able to describe the conditions, to give them shape, to sing for those millions who would never hear themselves, never get on the air or into print except as statistics.
And so to have this ability and to have the opportunity was a gift that imposed heavy obligations. Like his people, the minstrel was in perpetual debt. “The amount that we owe is all that we have,” he observed once. And then went on to say that he had borrowed his words from his people, that the songs he sang were not his but theirs: “The only story that I have tried to write has been you.” He wanted to mail himself like an urgent letter loaded with postage to those who otherwise would not read, to be like a wind-sent newspaper clipping that has a message and a picture of a man:
“And it was blow little paper, blow! Twist and turn and stay up as long as you can, and when you come down, come down on a pent-house porch, come down easy.… Come down and lay there in the rain and the wind and the soot and the smoke and the grit.… But keep on trying to tell your message, and keep on trying to be a picture of a man, because without that story and without that message printed on you there, you wouldn’t be much. Remember, it’s just maybe, some day, sometime somebody will pick you up and look at your picture and read your message, and carry you in his pocket, and lay you on his shelf, and burn you in his stove. But he’ll have your message in his head and he’ll talk it and it’ll get around.”
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.