Ed Cray’s new biography of Woody Guthrie marks another step in a growing interest in the left-wing Okie troubadour. In 1997, historian Charles J. Shindo published Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination, which includes analysis of Woody Guthrie’s work along with that of John Ford and John Steinbeck. Joe Klein’s enthusiastic biography of Guthrie, first published in 1980, was reissued in 1999, the year after Ed Cray began the new biography. Elizabeth Partridge’s book for young readers, This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie was published in 2002.
Cray’s work is the first scholarly treatment of Woody Guthrie’s life and career. Cray is a journalism professor in the prestigious University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications. He had access to thousands of letters that other authors had never read, and his footnotes are meticulous and informative. Only Cray has delved into the passionate love and commitment between Guthrie and his wife, Marjorie, mother of Arlo and Nora Guthrie. Cray also tackles and sympathetically treats the U.S. left of the 1930s in which Guthrie was imbedded and to which his loyalty was unflagging.
Cray’s biography arrives on a wave of renewed popular interest in Guthrie’s life, music, and politics. In 1998, British militant writer and musician Billy Bragg and his U.S. counterpart, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, put some of Guthrie’s unpublished and unsung poems/lyrics to music. The result was an amazing CD, Mermaid Avenue. Two years later, the same duo produced a second CD in the same manner. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution released Moe Asch’s recordings of Guthrie from the second half of the 1940s. That same year, Woody’s image appeared on a first class stamp.
In 1999, the Smithsonian Institution began a cross-country exhibit of Guthrie’s original manuscripts, letters, and drawings, stunningly staged with photographs and texts that did not omit Guthrie’s devotion to socialism. Because of its accurate portrayal of Woody Guthrie, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, located in Oklahoma City, refused the Smithsonian’s proposal to launch the exhibit there. The rabidly right-wing Gaylord family, which has long dominated major media in Oklahoma, also controls the museum’s board of directors through Edward K. Gaylord, the publisher of The Daily Oklahoman. Woody Guthrie has not been inducted into the museum’s honorees. The exhibit opened at the Los Angeles Autry Museum of Western Heritage and eventually appeared in Tulsa, Oklahoma, its only venue in Guthrie’s home state. In fact, even during the fifteen years of the height of Guthrie’s career, he was never invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Woody Guthrie, like many other U.S. artists, paid a high price in his professional career and legacy because of his politics.
In Oklahoma when I grew up, we didn’t know about Woody Guthrie. His cowboy song, Oklahoma Hills, was recorded by many and played on the radio, but I don’t recall it being attributed to anyone. I thought it was traditional and anonymous like many of the ballads of my childhood. Not until I moved to San Francisco in 1960 would I hear of Woody. As a student at San Francisco State and the University of California during the early sixties folk revival, my friends found that hard to believe.
In Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody’s birthplace, nothing marked it as such until 1972, five years after his death, when one of Okemah’s water towers was painted with Okemah, Home of Woody Guthrie. Later, a small museum appeared, responding to inquiries by vagabond admirers from all over the United States, Europe, and Japan. Then in 1998, something remarkable happened, the founding of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, to be held annually on Woody’s birthday, July 14. Billy Bragg, along with Arlo Guthrie, were the stars of the 1998 festival, but more interesting to me, a dozen lesser known groups from Oklahoma and other Southwest states performed, the most notable being Oklahoma’s popular Red Dirt Rangers. The organizers of the festival commissioned a local Creek Indian sculptor to cast a full-body bronze of Woody and his guitar, marked with his This machine kills fascists inscription, now a permanent fixture on Okemah’s main commercial street.
Three serious problems run through Cray’s biography, as they do in the other Guthrie biographies. One is a lack of attention to, and understanding of, the significance of Guthrie’s Oklahoma roots. Another is insistence on Guthrie’s patriotism, apparently intended to balance his blatant leftism and make him more acceptable. A third is the questioning of Guthrie’s authenticity in representing poor and working people.
In his biography of Guthrie, Joe Klein quotes Alan Lomax about the importance of Woody’s Oklahoma roots: Early on, Alan Lomax told me that I’d never really know Woody until I understood where he came from (xiii). Klein spent some time in Okemah and narrated the story of the first seventeen years of Guthrie’s life, as well as social ambience in which he was born and lived, but the result is superficial. Cray probes much deeper than Klein in the first two chapters of his biography, as well as into the social dynamics that existed among the dust bowl Okies in California with whom Guthrie became identified.
Most Oklahoma settlers, including Guthrie’s family (and mine) were descendants of Ulster-Scots. Usually the Ulster-Scots descendants say their ancestors came to America from Ireland, but their trek was more complicated than that. The Ulster-Scots were a people born and bred of empire. They were Protestant Scottish settlers in the British colony of Northern Ireland, where the indigenous inhabitants were Catholic. By the time of U.S. independence, Scots, mainly Ulster-Scots, made up around one-sixth of the population and in some areas such as Pennsylvania, a third. Their communities predominated on the frontier. During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, first and second generation Ulster-Scots continued to move westward into the Ohio Valley, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Ulster-Scots were overwhelmingly frontier settlers rather than scouts, explorers, or fur traders. They cleared forests, built log cabins, killed Indians, and during times of war they employed their fighting skills effectively. Many descendants of the Ulster-Scots trekked from Kentucky and Tennessee to Missouri and Arkansas, and then moved on to Oklahoma during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Guthrie’s grandparents migrated from Texas to Okemah—Creek Indian territory—in 1897. By then, before the Native American republics of the Indian Territory were dissolved by the 1898 Curtis Act (which violated the existing treaties with the Native nations and forced their communal holdings into individual allotments), white tenants had already come to outnumber the Indians two to one in Indian Territory. Breaking the law, violence, and corruption were from the first the rule not the exception in that region, and this set the stage for an agrarian rebellion.
Times were hard. Over 60 percent of mortgaged farms were lost to foreclosure in the period after Guthrie’s birth in 1912; most farms were worked by tenants. Farming in Oklahoma was commercial from the beginning of white settlement, with tenants as wage laborers and cotton the king; cotton production doubled between 1909 and 1919, making Oklahoma the fourth-largest cotton producer among the states and firmly establishing a cash-and-credit economy. The other major industries were oil production and coal mining, which spawned boomtowns and attracted large populations of transient workers.
Between 1906 and 1917, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party won converts on a massive scale in Oklahoma. They adopted the religious evangelist technique of holding huge week-long encampments with speakers, usually near small towns. Socialists were elected as local officials and the lampposts of many towns were hung with red flags. In 1915 alone, 205 of the mass encampments were held. The Socialists never won a statewide race in Oklahoma, but the percentage of the vote for the Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, increased from 6 percent in 1908 to 16 percent in 1912. In 1914, the Socialist candidate for governor won 21 percent of the vote and in the state legislature they won four House seats and one Senate seat, along with many local offices. This phenomenon was occurring in the state’s Indian and African-American communities as well as the white ones.
The U.S. entrance into the European war in 1917 produced a wave of patriotism and a brutal backlash against the unanimously antiwar Socialists of Oklahoma. When the government began to draft soldiers for the First World War, the white, black, and red farmers in southeastern Oklahoma resisted conscription in an uprising called the Green Corn Rebellion, which was crushed with fierce repression. Fiery crosses burned all over the state, and the ranks and resources of the Ku Klux Klan burgeoned.
Woody Guthrie’s father Charlie was not among those who viewed socialism positively. He was rabidly antisocialist and racist, participating in at least one lynching. He considered himself an entrepreneur and politician, always striving, and failing. Guthrie never wrote or talked much about being influenced during his childhood by radicalism and repression, but once in California he certainly took to the socialist milieu like a natural.
Guthrie considered the Dust Bowl migrants to be his people. The Communist Party focused on organizing the farm laborers. This was the decade when a general strike shut down San Francisco, vigilantes attacked union organizers in the Central Valley, and the Red Squad hunted Communists in Los Angeles. Will Rogers, the most famous entertainer of the time, an Oklahoman transplanted to Hollywood, became a leftist-populist. Woody Guthrie followed in Rogers’s wake. During the mid-1930s, Guthrie hoboed to California as the troubadour of the Dust Bowl migrants. He wrote ballads honoring the Oklahoma outlaws hounded and killed by the FBI, such as Pretty Boy Floyd. But he also wrote of Jesse James, comparing him to Jesus Christ. Jesse James, his brother Frank, and the Younger brothers who together made up the train and bank robbing James Gang, were Confederate irregulars who continued their own war against the Union after the Civil War ended. Guthrie sang the rural Oklahoma oral tradition.
In Los Angeles Guthrie met Communist Party organizers who took him up and, it’s fair to say, made him famous. Al Richmond, editor of the Communist Party newspaper wrote in his autobiography, [I] ran into this young hillbilly singer from Oklahoma, who turned out to be socially conscious (in a favorite phrase of that era), and accepted an invitation to perform at several Left events. Guthrie offered to write a column for the paper, but being suspicious of folksiness and words misspelled for comic effect, I wondered at first: is this columnist phony or genuine? Richmond met him and found him to be a man in his late twenties, slender and wiry, a wild mop of hair and a beard. He might have been called a hippie in later years, except that his Oklahoma speech was authentic and so was his familiarity with the folkways of the open road as it was traveled by uprooted farmers and migratory workers. He was genuine.
The decade of the 1930s was the period of the Popular Front against Fascism organized by the Communist International. The U.S. Communist Party attempted to Americanize the party: Communism is twentieth century Americanism was the new party slogan as it displayed American flags and replaced the Internationale with The Star-Spangled Banner, and elevated the U.S. founding fathers to equal status with Marx and Lenin. The brigades sent to support the Spanish loyalists were named in honor of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, not Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglas, Fannie Wright or John Brown.
It is not at all clear that Guthrie was imbued with this patriotism. His This Land is Your Land (1940), which is critical of patriotism and was a challenge to the syrupy God Bless America, is used by nearly all Guthrie observers, including Cray, as an example of his patriotism, ignoring and even removing the irony of the lyrics. Cray quotes the two regularly omitted verses:
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief office I saw my people—
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.
Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property.
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing—
This land was made for you and me.
And Cray points out that Woody taught his son Arlo to finish the private property verse with That side was made for you and me, although he includes only the other version, This land was made for you and me. Cray comments: [Arlo] counted his favorite moment as the day Woody taught him the heartfelt verses he had cut from This Land is Your Land, without specifying what the verses were (379).
In his introduction, Cray writes about This Land is Your Land claiming that: No other song so embodied Guthrie the man, his optimism, his love of the nation and its people (xxiixxiii). Here, Cray claims that Guthrie himself removed the relief office verse, but fails to even mention the private property verse.
Partridge in her book for young people dwells on Woody’s patriotism and Americanism. Similarly, Joe Klein, in his afterword in the 1999 edition of his biography of Guthrie, relates that he had finally come to understand the essence of Woody Guthrie, that it was his sense of freedom, a deeply American trait (470). But in the 1980 introduction Klein quoted Pete Seeger, You know, Woody was a Communist (xii).
Cray ends his biography: So the songs live. So too does Woody Guthrie, American.
Why not Woody Guthrie, communist? That appeared to be his most heartfelt identity. In the middle section of the book, Cray narrates the activities and mini-biographies of Communists in the 1930s and ’40s, as well as the repression and blacklisting that followed during the late 1940s and ’50s. This is fascinating and valuable information. But he never quite seems willing to concede that Guthrie was a communist to his core, and if he was, then he couldn’t possibly be authentic. This is most evident in his account of Guthrie’s Sacco and Vanzetti album.
Cray writes that in 1946, Moe Asch suggested that Guthrie research the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti case of the 1920s; the two Italian immigrant worker anarchists were executed for a robbery and murder they denied committing. Cray claims that the more intense the Cold War, the more Guthrie’s lyrics became polemics. Poetry gave way to political speeches in verse, and further asserts that Guthrie was conscious of the problem (299). Although what Guthrie appeared to be conscious of was that he found the task difficult, not that his songs were too political. He finished the album after a year. Cray judges the work negatively: …the resulting eleven songs were labored, not as well conceived as the earlier dust bowl cycle. They seemed to run on too long, to lack the economic terseness that marked Guthrie’s best work….The spare voice and wry comment were gone, replaced by a tone of preachy rectitude. Guthrie was no longer writing about people, his people, but about great issues of the day (300). No wonder Cray doesn’t even mention the Billy BraggJeff Tweedy resurrection of Guthrie’s formerly unheard songs, since they stray from the dust bowl.
Cray is no musicologist, and his opinion is worth no more than yours or mine. And in this reviewer’s opinion, he’s wrong; the Sacco and Vanzetti songs are Guthrie’s best. The album, reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in 1996, is a must buy. The music is haunting, the lyrics breathtaking. Read a bit of the sixteen-verse long The Flood and the Storm which tells the background of the case:
Old von Hindenburg and his Royal German Army
Are tramps in tatters and in rags.
Uncle Sammy has tied every nation in this world
In his long old leather money bag…
Every dollar in the world it rolled and it rolled.
And it rolled into Uncle Sammy’s door
A few they got richer, and richer, and richer.
But the poor folks kept but getting poor…
The world shook harder on the night they died
Than ’twas shaken by that Great World’s War.
More millions did march for Sacco and Vanzetti
Than did march for the great War Lords.
Cray’s disdain for Guthrie’s political songs forms the basis to his charge that: Guthrie, praised for his authenticity, was inauthentic himself.
Born into the middle class, Guthrie turned his back on the very values that drove his go-getter father, Charley….In the cotton rows of California’s Imperial Valley, in the fields and orchards of the Central Valley, twenty-five-year-old Woody Guthrie first recognized the social and economic inequities that burdened the migrants. Only later, in early 1939, did he adopt the Socialist credo: The highest social priority must go to the least fortunate’….The adult Woody Guthrie straddled two social classes, two political camps….Guthrie represented a synthesis of populism, religious values, and a fierce love of country, overlaid with Marxist concepts of the dictatorship of the proletariat and Communist Party leadership as infallible. (40001)
This is a big question: authenticity, representation, class, identity—who or what is the real thing?
Rarely can the issue be posed as simply as Cray would wish. Presumably if Woody Guthrie had, like his sick failure of a father, glorified free enterprise, attended lynchings, been a racist, and First World War patriot, Cray would have blessed him as authentic. But, on the contrary, in fact it was Woody Guthrie who understood (and sang) what was real and what was not.