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Woody Guthrie

Page history last edited by taylor.clenney@... 8 years, 9 months ago






Table of Contents:


1. Woody Guthrie: A Brief History.


2. The Experience of Tragedy:
The Dust Bowl, Fire, The Great Depression and Guthrie's social agenda.


3. Guthrie's Egalitarian Dream:  American Creed and the American Dream. 


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkRCBz-PAYE&feature=player_detailpage        (intro) 

Pastures of Plenty 


Dust Bowl 


Do Re Mi




1. Woody Guthrie: A Brief History.


Born In Okemah, Oklahoma July 14th, 1912, Woody Guthrie was an American songwriter, singer, cartoonist, and a social and political activist.  He best known for his song "This Land Is Your Land" which is Guthrie's response and protest to "God Bless America" by Irving Berlin.  Guthrie thought Berlin's song was too religiously fanatical and lacked an accurate portrayal of America  (woodyguthrie.org).

Though Woody Guthrie may be best known for "This Land Is Your Land", a closer look his life, songs, and art reveals a profound statement about what he thought America should stand for and what it should aim to become. 


Okemah, OKlahoma 

Photo from: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/radio/woody/bioframe.html


Woody Guthrie was the second-born child to Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie, an enthusiastic and unconventional middle class family.  His father, Charles was man of seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm—a trait Woody inherited.  As an occupation, Charles found work as a fist-fighting democrat, politician, land speculator (buying and selling farmland) and cowboy.  (Klein 8, 15).  He kept a punching bag in his office and at one time became obsessed with body-building and fitness—he even won some boxing prizes.  (Klein 8).  Charles was elected County Clerk of Okfuskee County before Woody was  born.

He engaged in repressing and terrorizing the all-black town nearby of Boley, and fought against supporters of the socialist party and Eugene V. Debs (Klien 11).  It is key here to note that as his father from a middle class background tried to defame the Socialist Party, Woody who mostly grew up poor spent his life in support of socialism.


At one point in 1910, Charles participated in a mob which pulled a black husband and wife, Lawrence and Laura Nelson, out of the Okemah jail only to hang them on the bridge over the Canadian River (klein 10).  The Nelson's "baby was left crying helplessly by the side of the road" (Klein 10).  This public display of hatred toward Blacks silenced their political power in Okfuskee County, that is when Charles attacked the Socialist.  Klein writes,

"With blacks no longer an electoral problem, Charley Guthrie turned his attention to the other major    threat facing the Democrats in Okfuskee County--the Socialist Party.  Oddly enough, there were more dues-paying Socialist in Oklahoma in 1910 than in any other state in the Union.  There was a strong heritage of agrarian radicalism in the area, dating back to the populist of the late nineteenth century, and the Socialist found eager supporters among the proud dirt farmers who'd been forced to into renting from absentee landlords, especially from bankers and land speculators.  (Klein 11) 



The Guthrie’s were a musically inclined family; Charles introduced Woody to Indian songs, and western and Scottish folk music.  Nora Guthrie had her influence too; she played piano and tried to instill in her children a sense of social awareness.  Her lessons had an impact; Woody would spend much of his life as an advocate of social equality.  The Guthrie’s were seen as rowdy, boisterous folks and were never invited to the upper-class functions in town (Klein 8).  The Guthrie’s were outsiders due to the unconventional nature of the family.  For more information on Woody Guthrie's early life

click here:   http://www.woodyguthrie.org/


Pampa, Texas 


Woody with wife, Mary and their chilbren. (Photo Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives


Woody soon moved to Pampa to be closer to his family, and it is here where he learned of his talent for drawing and music, and married his first wife, Mary.  Pampa, a little oil-boom town now experiencing the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, was to be the desolate launch pad for Woody’s transformation.  From an outsiders perspective, Guthrie hardly seemed to notice the economic devastation around him.  He was always engaged in some seemingly random interest and he used his endless energy and curiosity to persue an array of activities, some even generated income.  He learned of his talent for sign painting and found odd jobs fixing up and creating old signs for small business owners.  Then, he would spend days on end in the library, it is said that he read most every book available in Pampa.   Woody was a wild personality, bursting with authenticity, optimism and restlessness.  Author and Guthrie scholar, Joe Klein writes on Woody's personality, "But the oddest thing about Woody was that he could become, quite literally, childlike:  when he was interested in something or someone--and, sooner or later, he was intersted in virtually everything in town--he would dive in like a child, entirely preoccupied, losing all sense of time and place" (Klein 48). One day while working as a soda jerk he found an old guitar in the back of the cluttered store.  The owner told him that he could have the guitar if he wanted it, so he took it home and learned some chords.  Soon he met Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker and they formed his first band, the Corn Cob Trio.  The band had some success at town dances and even got put on the radio in Pampa.  Woody soon married Matt’s sister, Mary, Woody was 21, Mary 16—they eventually had three children.



Guthrie eventually hopped trains and hitch hiked to California where he found work on the radical leftist radio station KFVD.  The show was called "The Oklahoma and Woody Show" where Guthrie and co-host Maxine Crissman sang folk songs and  sometimes created humorous and no-so-humorous social and political commentary.  During this time Woody also submitted material to a communist newspaper in San

Fransisco, People's Daily World, under the title "Woody Sez." In one such submission to the paper, Woody writes about the economic unfairness imposed upon the farmers by the rich:


I never stopped to think of it before, but you know--a police--man will jest stand there an let a banker rob a farmer, or a finace man rob a workin man.  But if a farmer robs a banker--you wood have a hole dern army of cops out a shooting at him.  Robbery is a chapter in etiquette.  You mite say that Wall St. is the St. that keeps you off Easy St.  I ain't a communist necessarily, but i been in the red all my life.  (Klein 129-30)


New York

Woody and Leadbelly


Woody found himself busier than ever in New York.  He met and fell in love with a Jewish upper-middle class dancer named Marjorie Greenblatt. Also, it was there that he met the future Almanac Singers, like Pete Seeger. Millard Lampell and Lee Hays.  The Almanac Singers were political activists which were closley identified with the Comunist Party and the Popular Front.  The group eventually started

singing songs related to WWII and defeating facism, but still they sang for racial inclusivity and workers



Guthrie with the Almanac Singers


2. The Experience of Tragedy: 
The Dust Bowl, Fire, and the Great Depression influence Guthrie's social agenda.


Before the family had chance to have a normal life tragedy busted whatever American Dream they had in mind.  A series of fires forever changed their lives. 


Woody’s older sister, Clara, somehow got kerosene on her clothes, it was then mysteriously ignited.  She burst out the front door onto the lawn in flames before a neighbor smothered out the flames with a blanket.  She was the pride of the family, a promising student and independent thinker—Woody adored her.  Nora, was blamed by the citizens of Okemah to have doused her with the oil, but the rumor added up to nothing but gossip.  Nora however could have very well played a role in her daughter’s death as her movements were growing increasingly unstable due to undiagnosed Huntington’s chorea, a disease she passed on to Woody. 


Two Guthrie houses were destroyed by similar fires, thought to also be caused by Nora’s condition.  Then Charles began to lose his farms, while over spending in a campaign to get re-elected to County Clerk.  “By the beginning of 1923, Charley was stone-cold broke” (Klein 24).  Then one day while Charley was taking a nap on the sofa, Nora dropped a kerosene lamp on him.  “That afternoon, the doctors came and took her to the state mental hospital at Norman.  She was gone by the time Woody got home” (Klein 33).  Charles wanted to die, but after a few days it was clear that he was going to live.  Arrangements were made for him to go to Pampa Texas to live with his sister, Maude, to recuperate but not after he spent weeks in the hospital.  Woody was now the last Guthrie outsider, all alone in Okemah, barely a teenager.


List of Fire related incidents in Woody's life:

1. Older sister Clara died from kerosene fire.

2. New two-story house destroyed by fire one month after completion

3. Another house destroyed by fire

4. Woody's father almost died due to Nora's disease, Huntington's Choria.

5. Woody's first child with marjorie died when her halloween costume caught fire.


Other Tragedies include:

Woody's father lost all his land and money before the Great Depression.


The Great Depression.


The Dust Bowl.


Woody's Struggle with Huntington's Choria


Woody spent more or less the last 14 years of his life in the Brooklyn State hospital.  It was there that his

body slowly depleted from his battle with Huntington's Disease.  He died in 1967.



For a video of Guthrie's song, Dust Bowl Refugee click below.






3. Guthrie's Egalitarian Dream:  American Creed and the American Dream.


"The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it." George Carlin, Brain Droppings 


Guthrie, perhaps due to his experience with the Great Depression, The Dust Bowl and his fall from middle class as a child, sought to give a voice to the working class people.  He advocated through his songs a less liberal economic system that would lessen the gap between the rich and the poor.  He wrote songs like, I Ain't Got No Home, and Do Re Mi, that reveal the darker reality of the American Dream, we aren’t all equal,  hard work instead of giving me more money, has only got me more hard work.  How was Guthrie to inform and inspire a people whom live in, and are influenced by, the consumerism of a capitalist mass society?  If the people who have the most of the wealth are comfortable, socioeconomic change is less likely to happen.  What myths of American were at work in Guthrie’s mind, and how did they shape his art? Though Guthrie failed to bring about a new Egalitarian Dream in his lifetime, his art and songs are still relevant to today's society; in that, for a more just and equal society to exist, it first needs social and economic reform, and the reform happens when the poorer people unit, organize and force change to happen. 


Born into wealth and having it diminish to nothing before his opportunity to inherit it might of caused something to change in the mind of Guthrie. For example, he’d work at an odd job for a few days and when he’d get his pay, he sometimes would just give his money away to someone on the street (Klein 38).  With this example, the model of Christian charity is part of Woody Guthrie’s Egalitarian Dream, a dream where everyone looks out for each other—where the strong support the weak.  He apparently wasn't interested in making money, or inheriting it either, but he saw that inequality present in the working class people, and tried to help them realize that they as citizens of United States could change policy if they only would recognize their collective power and unite as a people. 


When Guthrie went to California during the Great Depression, he saw the migrant camps full of poor families.  He identified with the Okies and Arkies there struggling to simply survive and fought to create unity among the workers.  Woody, like most Americans, believed in the values of the American Dream--do what is right, be honest, work hard and you can achieve anything.  However, as he struggled to enlighten laborers to the reality of their situation with his leftist honesty and all-American virtue, (Listen to Do Re Mi here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46mO7jx3JEwWoody started seeing himself as a kind of prophet-singer and took on a role that separated him from “his” people.  Here is the democratic artists dilemma, "At the same time that the democratic poet is to be of the people, a citizen with no special status in a society which has transcended class distinctions, he or she must also inspire and instruct the people, awaken in then a sense of their dignity and wisdom.  Such a mission seems to place the poet in a special class, one reserved in former ages for religious leaders (Pascal 48).  While Woody is trying to gain popularity with the people by claiming to be one of them, he is also placing himself in a separate class.  Whitman knew of this need to enlighten and relate at the same time, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it" (Whitman 729). 

The above is also an example of the contradictory nature of the American Dream and democracy, its emphasis on individualism and equality.  The question Guthrie may have never asked himself is, “is the dream more about the individual or the country?"  For the answer to this question, I offer a quote from scholars, Stephen MacNamme and Robert Miller:




The American Dream has at its core an emphasis on the individual.  According to the ideology of the American Dream, we are 'Masters of our own fate.'  We 'go our own way' and 'do our own thing.'  For Americans, 'it all comes down to the individual.'  The American emphasis on individualism is not a historical accident but is firmly rooted in the religious, political, economic, and cultural experience of America as a nation of immigrants. (MacNamee, Miller 4)



Guthrie must have seen the Great Depression and its far-reaching poverty, as a historically opportune situation to engage the public and push for more commonality.  Woody's answer to the economic inequality present in the U.S. at this time was social activism and Socialist policies.  He supported the Bonneville Power Association, aka BPA; a government funded social building of dams along the Columbia River to generate electricity for the public.  Guthrie loved the power of the government to bring a communal spirit into action; the result of the BPA was large amounts of cheap, renewable energy for the public's use. 

 However, the authenticity of Woody’s socially communal protest crumbles when contrasted with his rough and tough individualism. 

He became obsessed with his role as an artist and creator.  For example; he wrote his initials on most every doodle and verse, yet his work and songs have a naturalistic quality to them—they seem to have come from nowhere (Turner).  Moreover, as Guthrie gained artistic momentum and popularity he began to see himself as a divine American prophet of the people, a role that is problematic if one claims to be a common individual of the communal whole. 


Woody may have felt that to validate his vision and work he needed to be digested and accepted by the people of the nation.   Scholar Richard Pascal comments on how Guthrie and Walt Whitman both created art that was aimed to bring more equality,”


The above example, again points to the conflicting nature of the two core American values of liberty and equality—the key components of democracy.  Together equality and liberty form the American democracy, the checks and balances, a democracy ruled by a middle class majority (Huntington 18).  The declaration of independence boasts a creed in favor of both, equality for all men, as well as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  It is true that these two ideals found a common dwelling place in America.  Scholar Samuel Huntington states, “They developed in conjunction with, not in opposition to, each other, representing not so much the political values of opposing social classes as the opposing political values of a single middle class” (Huntington 17). It seems Guthrie interpreted liberty and happiness through a lens that saw “social health” as happiness, rather than through the lens of economic power and consumerism representing happiness. Furthermore, Guthrie wasn’t a part of the decision-making middle class, none of the people he supported were. 

Picture from:http://thepeoplescube.com/current-truth/unions-lenin-and-the-american-way-t4214.html


One problem Woody Guthrie faced in his goal of informing and empowering the people of the nation was that he couldn't come across as preachy.  In politics it the same way, the more specific/overt the message, the more cleavage, rather than consensus, is the effect (Huntington 18).  Guthrie had to portray his message in a naturalistic way so that working class could come to their own conclusions without being told what to believe (Pascal 51).  For this example I offer the subtle protest found in Guthrie song, Pastures of Plenty:



Listen to Pastures Of Plenty, by Woody Guthrie here:





Pastures Of Plenty


It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed 
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold  


I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind


California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down   
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win


It's always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life if need be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free



By Woody Guthrie

Written in 1941. 


~~~He strikes a communal identity with any laborer with the lwords "mighty hard row my "poor"  hands have hoed.  He is poor economically and bodily.  Keeping his message covert, he embodies the landscape of the U.S.--he's everywhere, in the hot desert and cold.

~~~He speaks here to the laborers again, signifying the Okies and Arkies coming from the dust bowl, "come with the dust, and go with the wind."

There's nothing to keep the workers there, they get blown away because they're not wanted anymore.

~~~He glues the worker and the landowner together and shows them their connectedness.  He works in "your orchards" and harvest "your" crops. Here, he shows the rich how he provides them with comfort with his work, which gives them "sparkling wine."

~~~Then he mentions there are "pastures of Plenty", they are fertile vast.  They could be savior of the people if they were shared by the people.  Here, "union" symbolizes our national unity and the need to organize laborers to"fight till" they "win."

~~~Here, Guthrie is talking about how he will work forever "till I die"  to help to change the world so that the pastures will some day be "free"


Guthrie's message in Pastures Of Plenty is covert, but powerful.  It calls the people of the land to care for each other and share. 





The more broad the definitions of the American Creed, “support for liberty, democracy, majority rule, minority rights, freedom of speech and religion, and less clearly, equality approaches unanimity from virtually all groups in the American public” (Huntington 18).  Equality is assumed to be present in the American Creed; it is its vagueness that allows it to become part of nation identity.  If equality is blindly assumed to already exist by the masses, how could Guthrie have any success in persuading the populous to socialism?  Moreover, it is the more educated and active members and leaders of communities that are more likely to support the values of the Creed (Huntington 18).  “The consensus of the values of the system, in short, is broadest among those most active in the system and who benefit the most from it (Huntington 18). 


Guthrie was fighting against a vague Creed of the middle class, a Creed that floats above those who aim to change it.  “Those with higher socioeconomic status are also less likely than those of lower status to perceive major differences between the values of the system and the reality of the system” (Huntington 18). 


Whitman gambled for an awakening of the soul of the country, just like Guthrie did, “Whitman’s bold gamble is that the public may be awakened thus, converted from the pleasures of passive consumption, so conducive to unwitting subservience to the covertly hierarchical authority of the text, to the liberating joy and challenge of “athletic” reading.”  Apart from just doing what feels right, Woody felt that he could really bring about change for Americans.  Perhaps, Guthrie gambled, just as Whitman, in part because he had an even greater audience at his disposal, “revolutionary new communications industries had rendered a greater proportion of the populace more accessible, on more levels, to public messages of exhortation and persuasion (Pascal 51).  By 1940,”electronic media, radio, sound recording, and film, signified that the potentially vast readership of the previous century had been eclipsed (if not supplanted) by a listening and viewing audience truly national in scope, nation-sized” (Pascal 51).  According to Richard Pascal, Guthrie clearly sensed that the airwaves and recording technology might be exploited for social progress and change, “for arousing the masses to a realization of their inherent dignity and latent wisdom and power” (Pascal 51).

But the Media and technologies were being used in ways that did not strike Woody as noble or virtuous, Woody attacks capitalism and greed:

I don’t guess you could find a very big radio station that’s willing to make these songs very famous.  There’s a little bunch of fellers that twist a cool million dollars out of the sweat and blood of the folks that made up these songs.  If they was given a half, even a fourth of a chance these songs would strike a light in the heart of the people that would spread like a prairie fire on a dry, windy day.  Woody Guthrie

In the end, the American Creed still vaguely points its finger toward an ill-defined equality while putting personal freedom first, high above, and perhaps out of reach of Woody’s Egalitarian hopes.


Cartoon by Stahler, 2003.


In conclusion, Woody’s life and his accomplishments are a prime example of how the ideologies of the American Creed and American Dream influence the culture of the United States and manifest themselves in contradictory ways—“the gap between our promises and our performance” (Turner 8).  Woody was a patriot that sought to bring attention to the ideological gap between the American Creed and the reality of its performance.  Furthermore, Guthrie’s life proves the validity and performance of Mass and Folk culture as a functional way to study the, “patterns of meaning and consciousness across and among different segments of the population” (Levine 1399).   These ingrained American ideologies of equality and liberty shaped Guthrie’s life, his identity and his art. 



Works Cited



McNamee, Stephen J. and Robert K Miller, Jr.  “The Meritocracy Myth.”  Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004.  Print 


Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life.  New York: Dell Publishing, 1980.


Pascal, Richard. "Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie: American Prophet-singers and Their People." Jounal of American Studies. 24 (Apr 1990): 41-59.


Turner, Fredrick. "Just What in the Hell Has Gone Wrong here Anyhow?" Woody Guthrie and the American Dream.  American Heritage Magazine 28 October 1977:6.


Woody Guthrie Publications Inc. 21 octoberr 2010. 29 October 2010.



Suisman, David.  Reveiw: This Land Is Your Land: The Life  and Legacy of Woody Guthrie.

The Journal of American History, Vol. 87.3 (Dec. 2000), pp, 973-977.


Levine, Lawrence W. The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences.  The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No.5 (Dec., 1992), pp. 1369-1399.


Cray, Ed.  Ramblin' Man: The Life And Times Of Woody Guthrie.  New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2004.


Huntington, Samuel P. The American Creed and National Identity. American Politics: The Promise Of Disharmony. 

Harvard Univerlity press.  Massachusetts, 1981.



Woody's Legacy


Influenced Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Jimmy Lafave.

Woody Guthrie annual Folk Festival is held in each July in Okemah, Ok.






Links on this page:


American Creed


American Dream


Dust Bowl











Comments (1)

Zak said

at 5:26 pm on Dec 18, 2010

I like the article, Taylor. I knew next to nothing about Woodie Guthrie, but you really showed how his life and works came to represent and reflect the failure of the "American Dream" as an ideal.

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