Utne Blogs > Arts and Culture

Finding the Real Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie LOC This article originally appeared at Chronicle.com.  

Woody Guthrie has been having a blowout of a 100th birthday party, and it's lasted all year long. Forty-five years after his death in 1967, you can suddenly hear him everywhere.

Tribute concerts have been held around America and in Europe, many with conferences attached, and the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his Oklahoma hometown this summer swelled to extra-large proportions for the centennial. Smithsonian Folkways has released a lavishly documented box set, Woody at 100, that couples well-known compositions with rare and unreleased performances. On October 14th, all will culminate in a Kennedy Center Celebration Concert with an honor roll of musicians.

A handful of fine books have also been timed to appear this year—including a "song biography," This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, and a biography cum memoir, Woody's Road, by Guthrie's younger sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, and the Oklahoma historian and folklorist Guy Logsdon. Guthrie's archives, long housed in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., are being shifted amid great fanfare to Tulsa, Okla. There was even an announcement by the historian and television personality Douglas Brinkley and the polymathic performer Johnny Depp of a deal to publish the recently located manuscript of Guthrie's previously unknown 1947 Dust Bowl novel, House of Earth. 

But after the confetti flutters to the ground and the crowd disperses, exactly what will remain?

The instability of Guthrie's renown owes something to his leftist politics, but that's only part of the story. Some of it surely has to do with how he lived his life. He was a nonstop creator, but never an entrepreneur. As a result, lots of his work went unnoticed until he was "rediscovered" after he stopped performing—and despite recent excavations, there's still a rich trove in the archive, including thousands of song lyrics that he never recorded. Nor should we overlook the nature of Guthrie's art itself: The accessibility of his writing masks its depth.

But it still remains to explain why it has taken so long for Guthrie to get his due—not least from scholars. The man was quite simply a titan in his field. In less than two decades of public life, Guthrie created a vast body of work that continues to influence artists and listeners. His subject matter—immigration, unemployment, bank foreclosures, climate disasters—could not be more topical. Almost every American knows at least a song or two by Woody Guthrie, so why don't they know more about the songwriter?

The disjointed nature of Guthrie's artistic life, in which fame followed him like a long-delayed echo, is the first place to search for answers.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in the small town of Okemah, Okla., a few months before his namesake was elected president in 1912. Guthrie's family never knew stability. His father's work waned more often than it waxed, and Guthrie's mother, Nora, showed signs early in her son's life of the Huntington's disease that eventually killed her—and later him.

The Guthries were plagued by fire. Woody's beloved older sister, Clara, died in 1919 of burns suffered in a kitchen accident, and the family home burned down in 1927 as a result of a fire that Nora Guthrie may have started. She was eventually institutionalized. Guthrie's father, Charley Edward, permanently disabled by burns, moved to the farming town of Pampa, Tex.

Guthrie later joined his father in Texas, and there he found his musical vocation. He learned the guitar and started to perform. He also married for the first time at age 21, and quickly became a father himself. But beginning a lifelong pattern of restlessness, he soon drifted to Los Angeles, alone.

Guthrie's stay in Depression-era Southern California politicized him. New Deal reforms were slow to reach the coast, as powerful agribusiness interests fought hard for control of a poor and itinerant labor supply. That labor force included the "Okies" who had fled the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl in search of any sort of work. Appalled by the inequality he saw, Guthrie began to write songs about it:

He became a popular Los Angeles radio host in the late 1930s, and honed a persona that was part Okie, part homespun storyteller, and part singing activist. But Guthrie soon abandoned his radio gig and moved on—first back to Texas in a failed attempt at family life, and then to New York City in 1940, the year he wrote "This Land Is Your Land." In New York, Guthrie found a welcome among the city's left-wing intelligentsia and began to make a living performing at rallies, union halls, and other political gatherings.

He cut a record, Dust Bowl Ballads, for RCA in 1940. It turned out to be the only record he would make for a major label, and it was modestly received. He also recorded at the Library of Congress at the invitation of the folk archivist Alan Lomax that year, though those recordings weren't released until 1964.

Even in such congenial artistic surroundings, Guthrie could not stay put for long. He bounced back and forth from coast to coast in the early 1940s, sometimes with his new friend Pete Seeger, a Harvard dropout who sensed the genius of this guitar-wielding knight errant who was writing and singing on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised, the workers: people who needed a voice.

Guthrie—and also Seeger—was a Communist sympathizer at this time, but Guthrie probably didn't join the party. When asked about his politics, he had a one-liner at the ready: "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life." You could say he was never an official joiner—or perhaps that he could never belong to a group that would exclude anyone. In response to a question about his religion toward the end of his life, he quipped: "All or none."

Guthrie was turning out words at an astonishing rate during these years. "You rarely see a cross-out," Barry Ollman, owner of the largest collection of Guthrie's writings outside of the singer's official archive, told me at this past summer's WoodyFest in Okemah. "He knew what he wanted to say." In the spring of 1941, for example, Guthrie took a 30-day songwriting job with the Bonneville Power Administration, a New Deal project in the Pacific Northwest. His assignment was to write songs about the dams that were being built along the Columbia River. He wrote 26 songs that month, including "Roll on, Columbia," now the official state folk song of Washington.

None of those songs gained any sort of wide acclaim at the time. "This Land Is Your Land," for example, has had a career arc as eccentric as its author's. Guthrie didn't record his lyrics to the song until 1944, four years after he wrote them, and probably sang it on the radio for the first time in 1945, the same year that the words were first published. His recording wasn't released until 1952, when it appeared on a children's record and was barely noticed. Not until the late 1950s did the song gain prominence.

Guthrie paid little attention to the financial workings of the music business. He acted not so much out of principle—he was glad to make money—but because he was perpetually on the move, creatively as well as personally. In that respect, he was a true folksinger, happy to just share his songs with folks. In a 1999 essay, Seeger recalled that his friend's view of copyright was not exactly exclusive, and ran something like this: "Anyone caught singing one of these songs ... will be a good friend of mine, because that's why I wrote 'em."

The 1940s were the most stable period in Guthrie's life, and his most creative. His autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, was published in 1943 to wide notice. Not only was he celebrated as the newest man of letters of the Popular Front, a loose collection of leftist groups, but he was also lauded by mainstream critics. The book received about 150 reviews; The New York Times described him as "a poet" who was "on fire inside." Guthrie recorded scores of songs for Moses Asch's small, privately owned label during the 40s, but Asch released very few at the time, and they had no commercial impact. Most of the recordings did not appear until the early 1960s—but they eventually became a cornerstone of Guthrie's legacy.

Outside of a stint in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Guthrie remained based in New York City for the rest of the decade, now with his second wife, Marjorie, and a second set of children. That second family included his son Arlo, who would become a famous musician in his own right, and daughter Nora, her father's future archivist.

By the early 1950s Guthrie was displaying the erratic behavior that eventually led to his own diagnosis with Huntington's disease in 1952. Acquired from his mother (and passed on to two of his eight children), Huntington's usually presents in midlife. Like Lou Gehrig's disease, it is incurable. Unlike Gehrig's disease, which leaves the mind intact as it destroys the body, Huntington's destroys brain cells and causes cognitive changes (which led to a misdiagnosis of insanity for Guthrie's mother), even as it erodes muscle control. It's a long, bad death.

Always impulsive, Guthrie became mercurial and quarrelsome. He divorced again, returned to California, remarried. He repaired to New York after his third marriage ended and was taken in and cared for by Marjorie for the rest of his life. Intermittently, and then continuously, confined, he lingered at various hospitals for more than a decade before he died. In the process, he became, in the words of his biographer Ed Cray, "a vague, almost legendary figure."

He had always been well known among folk musicians, with Pete Seeger in the lead. As a member of The Weavers, Seeger helped make Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" into a hit, and his thousands of performances of "This Land Is Your Land" did much to fix the song in national and international memory.

The publisher Howard (Howie) S. Richmond also did unsung but crucial work to keep Guthrie's music in public view during the 1950s. At a time when Seeger and other performers were being blacklisted for their Communist associations, Richmond touted Guthrie's songs when Guthrie no longer could. Richmond sold many to publishers of songbooks, especially those assembled for children—thus allowing Guthrie's words to elude the blacklist. "This Land Is Your Land" Richmond gave away free.

A New York concert in 1956, organized as a benefit for Guthrie's family, first brought the singer out of the shadows to stand alongside his songs. The show put wind in the sails of the folk revival, and Guthrie became a hero to a new generation folkies that included Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and most famously, Bob Dylan. Ochs and Dylan wrote memorable songs about their idol ("Bound for Glory" and "Song to Woody"). Guthrie's recordings from the 1940s now began to appear, with extensive liner notes. So did tribute collections of others singing his songs.

Performing at this year's WoodyFest, the singer-songwriter Larry Long described Guthrie's life as a "creative explosion that subdivided into thousands of subatomic particles that turned into little Woodys." The efforts of those "little Woodys"—or Woody's children, as they're more often described—enabled Woody Guthrie to finally take his public place in the music he had helped to grow.

But Guthrie also remained a divisive figure. David Amram, who has written a suite of "Symphonic Variations of a Song by Woody Guthrie," suggested that Guthrie "was marginalized by people who wanted to put a political slant on him." He became a lightening rod for true believers right and left. "He was either a hero against the enemy, or he was the enemy," said Amram. "That's understandable in a boxing match, but not for a poet. Great artists are on everybody's side."

Nevertheless, Guthrie's personal politics made him an easy adversary. The American Legion blocked an attempt to honor him in his hometown in 1967 on the grounds that he was a Communist. Guy Logsdon recalled at the folkfest that, in 1982, Gov. George Nigh of Oklahoma forbade the mention of Guthrie's name at the celebration of Oklahoma at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. (Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and others helped organize an alternative "Tribute to Woody Guthrie." Thousands attended.)

Guthrie has also received surprisingly little scholarly attention. There have been two good biographies—Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie, in 1980, and Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man, 2004. (There's also a new short biography, Woody Guthrie: Writing America's Songs, by Ronald Cohen, an emeritus professor at Indiana University Northwest. And last year brought us the U.K.-based literary critic Will Kaufman's Woody Guthrie, American Radical.) But given Guthrie's immense stature and influence, there is much less scholarship on his work than one might expect. His radical politics would presumably not discourage academics, many of whom lean left themselves. Why the diffidence?

Read the rest at Chronicle.com.  

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, is general editor of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011).