Self Made Man
Woody Guthrie's hard road from Dust Bowl vagabond to cultural icon.
Thursday, January 4, 2001
The images are as romantic as they are disquieting: broken-down jalopies filled with gaunt-faced families and shabby furniture, hollow-eyed men looking for work, mournful women in sack-cloth dresses sitting on the porches of run-down houses. These are the images drawn from the heartland of America and carried west by Dust Bowl refugees. They show the country in one of our darkest hours, a time when our self-image as a land rich with opportunity was shattered. There was nothing we could do but hang on and survive. And that, by God, is what we did.
All the little people in the country sucked it up, toughed it out and then sailed across the oceans to kick Hitler''s and Hirohito''s asses. Sure, we lost a few people along the way, victims of hunger, despair or bullets, but for the most part, we proved ourselves to be tenacious and durable, able to overcome whatever misfortune we encountered.
Add to these images one other: a skinny little guy from dead-bang in the middle of Oklahoma with bushy hair, cigarette dangling from his lip, hunched over a beat-up guitar, shadows cutting rivers across a face weathered from years on the road. He''s a songwriter, a poet of the people, a champion for justice and the downtrodden, a troubadour fighting fascism--whether it stems from big businessmen in the USA or dictators abroad. Even on his deathbed, where he was dying from an exotic disease, he was heroic, mentoring Bob Dylan. Add Woody Guthrie''s image to the Dust Bowl and Depression collage--he''s another symbol that makes us feel good concerning what''s best in our own nature.
There''s a terrible, poetic truth in these images. Never mind that the poetry glosses over details like the fact that the US suckered Japan into a fight we were pretty sure we could win. And never mind that Woody Guthrie was born into a well-to-do family, stayed in school long enough to get a better-than-average education, seldom had to resort to manual labor, hobnobbed with stars and literati in Los Angeles and New York, and could write sentences so grammatically perfect they would make an English teacher beam.
We remember Woody as the hardscrabble Okie poet with a country-boy patois who fought for the rights and dignity of his fellow workers. Certainly that''s the Woody that''s celebrated in "This Land is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," the Smithsonian exhibit that opens at the Steinbeck Center next weekend.
Bound for Glory
As a wandering troubadour, Woody came into contact with hundreds of people, each of whom had his or her own story, with a personal slant and particular memory defect to flavor the tale. As a storyteller, Woody knew that truth is sometimes more important than facts. As a political activist with socialist and union leanings, Woody had his own ax to grind. Tracking down the real Woody is a tricky business, a fact that even Woody himself seemed to understand: He subtitled his Bound For Glory, the book that many take for gospel truth, as an "autobiographical novel."
"Whatever you read by Woody about Woody is probably not true," says Ed Cray, a University of Southern California professor of journalism. Cray, who previously penned biographies of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, is working on a major Woody Guthrie biography, expected to be released later this year.
Until Cray or someone else puts all the pieces of Woody''s life together in a comprehensive fashion, we''re left with a patchwork quilt.
Mostly we''ve come to know the Woody Guthrie myth third hand, through the stories told by Ramblin'' Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger--all of whom knew Guthrie toward the end of his career and life, and who heard the version of Woody''s life that he chose to tell them. They, in turn, added their own embellishments, and omitted whatever details that didn''t fit the story that they were telling.
Curiously, despite the fact that Guthrie is repeatedly cited as one of the most influential of American musicians, there''s been remarkably little effort made to find the real man behind the myth.
Today, in fact, the stories can almost be told by rote. In the early ''50s, Ramblin'' Jack Elliott was an up-and-coming folksinger who came to meet with Woody. The young Elliott must have been a fascinating character to the ailing Woody. Born Elliott Adnopoz in Brooklyn, Elliott was in the process of recreating himself as a hard-traveling, cowboy singer. Woody must have seen more than a little of himself in the young singer. According to Elliott, the two were virtually unseparable for a year, then toured together, intermittently, until 1954.
True to the name of the character he was becoming, Elliott rambled for a while, returning to New York in 1961, where he met another young musician who was looking to Guthrie for advice and inspiration. At the time, Robert Zimmerman was in the process of transforming himself into a poet and singer named Bob Dylan. It must have been quite a meeting of self-made myths and re-defined realities.
By that time, although he was still able to speak, Guthrie''s ability to play the guitar was almost entirely diminished. But, according to Elliott, he helped Guthrie mentor the young Dylan, a point that''s underscored in last year''s documentary The Ballad of Ramblin'' Jack, when the older musician is heard inviting the almost-unknown Dylan on stage to sing a song.
Elliott has told the stories about Woody and Dylan so many times that he can virtually reel them off by memory. "I''ve done so many long-winded interviews about Woody," says Elliott. "But each time I get a little bit better at it."
Without meaning to, Elliott might have laid bare both edges of a two-edged sword. While the stories might get better with each retelling, it doesn''t mean that they get any closer to revealing the real man behind the myth.
Treasure Trove of Stuff
"That''s the thing about Woody," says Nora Guthrie, Woody''s youngest daughter and founder of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. "There hasn''t been any significant research until the last five years. [The myth] wasn''t even really built, consciously. You could trace it to Dylan or Ramblin'' Jack, who told so many Woody stories. I think his Huntington''s [Chorea disease] probably had a lot to do with it."
After all, by the time Dylan and Elliott began telling the stories, Woody himself was locked away in a hospital, virtually unable to clarify or repudiate the stories that were being told about him.
"It''s really through their stories that we know Woody Guthrie," says Nora. "No one in my memory ever came to talk to [Woody]. When anyone wrote an article, it was really based on something they did with Dylan or Seeger. It wasn''t based on someone coming to our house and talking to us. It''s really interesting. This stuff that''s in our archives was in our house, and I know my mother would have shared it with people."
The "stuff" that''s in Nora''s archives includes a treasure trove of more than 3,000 songs and other Woody writings. But Nora estimates that even that massive collection is only a fragment of the work that Woody left behind.
By all accounts, Woody was a writer possessed. He was never without a notebook and, until the disease laid him low, he would spend hours typing on whatever paper he could find.
Nora believes we won''t really know the extent of Woody''s writings for another 10 or 15 years. "Woody was around so much, and spent so much time with other people," she says, "that it''s tough to gather the material. It''s not like a person who wrote in a studio or library. He was also known to include song lyrics in letters, songs to people or their kids. Luckily, we''ve received a few of these things back--people have been donating a lot of things back to the archives."
In the missing pieces, we''re likely to find a man who was much deeper and more interesting than the myth he left behind. While we mostly know Woody as a hillbilly, left-leaning political activist, Nora points out that his interests spread well beyond those boundaries. She says, for instance, that Woody had a lifelong interest in spiritual matters and that at one point he even tried to create a musical rendition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam.
In fact, according to Nora, her father''s legacy includes a broad range of songs that had nothing to do with political strife and struggle. She points to songs like "Ingrid Bergman," a song that Woody wrote but never recorded that''s included on Billy Bragg''s Mermaid Avenue collection of songs, as an example of a song that her father probably felt had little relevance or importance to his listeners. There was an immediacy to the other issues--like poverty, homelessness and workers'' rights--that eclipsed his other songs, theorizes Nora, but "when he comes home from writing those songs, what he writes and says are equally interesting and profound, and that''s what interests me."
Guthrie biographer Ed Cray agrees. He says that the works by which we know Woody were inspired by the issues of the day and by the company that Woody kept. He had, after all, found a philosophical home with other activists who were fighting inequities. Chief among those allies was the Communist Party.
Woody got a gig writing "Woody Sez," a regular column in People''s World, the party''s newsletter out of San Francisco. In his written pieces, Woody crafted a character not dissimilar from that of Will Rogers''--a simple man speaking simple truths in hillbilly argot.
"When he wrote, he wrote in the patois," says Cray. "He lays it on thick and suddenly his very soft drawl becomes, ''Y''all cood not unnerstan wut eye wuz sayin.'' That was all bullshit. There were all kinds of reasons why he did it. But it lends all kinds of credence to the later myth of Woody Guthrie.
"I don''t think Woody was a dishonest man in any way," Cray adds. "If the left wanted this exaggerated man of the soil, Woody Guthrie would give it to them. But he knew who he was."
The Okie from Okemah
Woody''s story begins not so long ago but it might as well have been on a planet far, far away. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, a town of about 1,500, on July 14, 1912. He was named after the liberal candidate who was elected as the 28th president of the United States of America later that year.
It was a rough childhood, despite the fact that Guthrie''s father had made a good living dealing in real estate. At the time of Woody''s birth, papa Charles owned about 30 farms and raised prize-winning cattle, bulls and hogs, and the family lived in nice house in a good section of town. By any standards, the Guthrie family was well off, and Charles became a political force to be reckoned with in the small town.
But about the time Woody was two, things starting going to hell in a hurry. The house where he was born burned down, taking a lot of the Guthries'' fortunes with it. Then, the house they moved into was destroyed by a cyclone, his father lost his property holdings, and his older sister, Clara, burned to death.
Most importantly, his mother, Nora, began exhibiting the symptoms of the Huntington''s Chorea that ultimately claimed her life. At first she was just moody. As the disease progressed, her behavior became increasing erratic. In 1927, when Woody was 14, his mother smashed up the house in which they were living: Windows were broken, the kitchen burned, the bedroom torn apart. The next day, she was taken to an insane asylum in Norman, Oklahoma, where she died three years later.
Nobody knew Nora was suffering from Huntington''s Chorea, a hereditary disease that causes certain brain cells to die, leading to nervousness, depression, involuntary muscle movement, hallucinations and lack of muscle control. Even if anyone had known what lay behind Nora''s actions, it wouldn''t have done much good--there''s still no cure for the disease she passed on to Woody.
Despite his father''s uncertain financial situation and his mother''s unpredictable emotions, Woody still found time to get approximately the equivalent of an 11th-grade schooling--a pretty good education for a young man growing up in a rural town in the ''20s. He was also a voracious reader, plowing most of the way through the psychology and philosophy sections at the local library.
The legend of Woody Guthrie, as he told songcatcher Alan Lomax, is that one day in 1929, he got tired of caring for a banty hen owned by the family he was currently staying with, and he hit the road.
Maybe it''s closer to the truth to say that the 17-year-old Woody, with a soul full of experience and a head full of ideas, simply recognized that he had outgrown the little town of his tattered youth.
After leaving Okemah, Woody drifted for a while doing odd jobs. He learned how to play guitar from his father''s half brother, married and had three children with his first wife, the former Mary Jennings. Woody followed other Dust Bowl refugees on the road to California, where he played his music in migrant camps up and down the state.
In 1939, he made the acquaintance of another young writer who was intensely interested in the plight of the migrant workers: John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath was published that year. The movie version of the book, starring Henry Fonda as protagonist Tom Joad, came out a year later.
There''s a story, told by Pete Seeger--and endorsed by Woody--that Woody went to see the movie and was so moved that he sat down and wrote all of "The Ballad of Tom Joad" in one sitting. But, according to Ed Cray, there''s anecdotal evidence by actor Will Geer, who knew both Steinbeck and Woody, that Woody was working on the song in 1939--long before the movie was released.
Given Woody''s immense appetite for the written word, it should come as no surprise if Woody had read the book. But he was going through something of a metamorphosis at the time and beginning to consolidate his created persona as a total backwoods hick. It was about this time that he was cultivating the relationships that would lead to his "Woody Sez" column. A character like that could hardly be expected to plow his way through Steinbeck''s sprawling tome--he could, however, safely go see the movie and respond to it without losing face.
Woody''s growing political interests almost mandated his move to New York, a hot bed of political activity. He played in a couple of folk-music groups, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, and was much in demand by labor organizers throughout the country.
His first wife, tired of life on the road, divorced him, and Woody married Marjorie, who became the mother of Arlo, Joady and Nora.
No one really knew it at the time, but Huntington''s Chorea first started making itself known as early as 1948, when, like his mother, Woody became progressively moodier and subject to long periods of depression. It had been only 19 years since he had left Okemah.
By 1952, the disease had gained such a hold on him that Woody was first hospitalized. Although he still had a cross country trip, a third marriage--and divorce--ahead of him, the years of rambling were coming to a close.
Woody Guthrie died on Oct. 3, 1967. He was 56 years old and had spent the last 12 years of his life hospitalized in New York and New Jersey hospitals.
This Song is Your Song
During his lifetime, Woody''s works were known by a relatively few people--Nora guesses there probably were no more than 500 albums pressed for any one of her father''s recordings. For the most part, the people who experienced Guthrie live were the people in labor camps and other artists.
Author Cray gives Pete Seeger the lion''s share of the credit for spreading Guthrie''s influence to the rest of the world. "We owe more to Pete Seeger than any other figure in the history of American contemporary music," says Cray. "More than the Beatles, more than Elvis. Pete told us how we could entertain ourselves, how we could be musicians and creators. Elvis only entertained us.
"Woody''s megaphone was really Pete. He carried the torch. It is really, really hard to realize how, through all the dark days of McCarthy, Pete went around the college campuses, the school cooperatives, nursery schools and sang. In passing on the songs, people bought Woody as a result. What Pete showed people, using Woody as an example, is that people could sing and it didn''t have to be about love and moon and June."
Certainly that was Woody''s hope. At one time, full of optimism, he wrote, "The best part of the whole story is not about me nor my mouth harp nor my guitar, but it is about several thousand folks all the way across the country that are grabbing pencils and tablets and writing down stories set to easy old tunes, every time they see a gun, a billy stick, a piece of lead pipe smash into the face of a picket, or a striker, or a speaker along the streets. And the cops all knew how easy, how fiery a song and a tune spreads, how long a song echoes around in the streets and valleys."
But somewhere along the way, that message got lost. When Bob Dylan walked out on stage with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he also was walking out on the notion that the best music is the music that anyone can play. While Guthrie''s influence on Dylan is profound and undeniable (at least by anyone who knows Dylan''s early work) and Dylan single-handedly virtually created the sub-genre of music that''s now called folk-rock, there''s something missing.
The music is more complex, the orchestrations more integral to the songs, electronic amplifiers and effects almost a pre-requisite for any song. In short, even the few folk-rock songs with a political bent that are written today are virtually impossible to perform without a studio of equipment and a backing band.
On the other hand, it seems like the vast majority of our folksingers, the people who are toughing it out with just guitars and their voices, have fallen into a vast pool of self-reflection. The types of songs that Woody Guthrie chose not to record, the ones that were more about himself than the outside world, are now the main staple of today''s folk singers.
At a time when we, as a nation, seem to be pulling further and further apart, we could use some music that joins us back together.
Although the nation as a whole is experiencing more prosperity than it ever has before, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots increases with each passing year. Labor unions have lost much of their power to bargain on behalf of workers, and we''ve just experienced a presidential election that was ugly no matter how you look at it.
Where are the songs that decry the injustice? The anthems that unify movements? The lyrics that skewer corrupt politics and politicians?
That''s what Woody Guthrie gave us. We may have forgotten but Guthrie gave us songs that expressed our will as a people and a nation. They were truly "folk" songs, arising from conditions that were oppressive, but which affected us as folk. And they were songs that we could sing, as rich in meaning as they were simple in rhythm or tune.
We may have forgotten who wrote the song, but most of us were taught Guthrie''s "This Land is My Land" when we were in elementary school. What we weren''t taught is the anger that underlies the song--we learned the watered-down version that could be sung in school auditoriums without offending anyone.
When we remember the song, if we remember the song, we remember the chorus:
This land is your land, this land is my land/
From California, to the New York Island/
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters/
This land was made for you and me.
We were never taught the final verse of the song, the one that gives lie to the treacly version we know and puts it into a much more combative context.
In the squares of the city--In the shadow of the steeple/
Near the relief office--I see my people/
And some are grumblin'' and some are wonderin''/
If this land''s still made for you and me.
Maybe that''s why there''s been a resurgence of interest in Woody Guthrie in the last five years, and maybe that''s why those old images of the Dust Bowl refugees and a scrawny Okie guitar-picker still have a power over us. It doesn''t matter if they''re entirely factual. They remind us of a time when we pulled together, a time when we overcame the odds and stood triumphant in our own eyes.