Woody Guthrie, American Radical



Woody Guthrie, American Radical reclaims the politically radical profile of America's greatest balladeer. Although he achieved a host of national honors and adorns US postage stamps, and although his song "This Land Is Your Land" is often considered the nation's second national anthem, Woody Guthrie committed his life to the radical struggle.


Will Kaufman traces Guthrie's political awakening and activism throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, ...

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Woody Guthrie, American Radical reclaims the politically radical profile of America's greatest balladeer. Although he achieved a host of national honors and adorns US postage stamps, and although his song "This Land Is Your Land" is often considered the nation's second national anthem, Woody Guthrie committed his life to the radical struggle.


Will Kaufman traces Guthrie's political awakening and activism throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Civil Rights struggle, and the poison of McCarthyism. He examines Guthrie's role in the development of a workers' culture in the context of radical activism spearheaded by the Communist Party of the USA, the Popular Front, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Kaufman also establishes Guthrie's significance in the perpetuation of cultural front objectives into the era of the "New Left" and beyond, particularly through his influence on the American and international protest song movement.


Utilizing a wealth of previously unseen archival materials such as letters, song lyrics, essays, personal reflections, and other manuscripts, Woody Guthrie, American Radical introduces a heretofore unknown Woody Guthrie: the canny political strategist, fitful thinker, and cultural front activist practically buried in the general public's romantic celebration of the "Dust Bowl Troubadour."


A portion of the royalties from the sales of this book will be donated to the Woody Guthrie Foundation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Overdue rediscovery of folk music’s great agitator."--Kirkus Reviews


"America, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots grow increasingly wide, Woody Guthrie, warts and all, seems more important than ever."--Nashville Scene


Library Journal
Although Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie and Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man capture Woody Guthrie's freewheeling personality and his empathy for the poor and downtrodden, Kaufman (American literature & culture, Univ. of Central Lancashire, UK; American Culture in the 1970s) is the first to portray in detail Guthrie's commitment to political radicalism, especially communism. Drawing on previously unseen letters, song lyrics, essays, and interviews with family and friends, Kaufman traces Guthrie's involvement in the workers' movement and his development of protest songs. He portrays Guthrie as a committed and flawed human immersed in political complexity and harrowing personal struggle. VERDICT Since most of the stories in Kaufman's appreciative portrait will be familiar to readers interested in Guthrie, it is best for those who know little about the singer to read first his autobiography, Bound for Glory, or as a next read after American Radical. Recent titles with similar appeal, Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day and John Szwed's Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, may attract a broader audience.—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews

Overdue rediscovery of folk music's great agitator.

"I was born to be a reddical," wrote Woody Guthrie (1912–67) at age 40. His father was a socialist-hating, small-town politician, but Guthrie learned during the 1930s Dust Bowl to identify with America's underclass, writes Kaufman (American Literature/Univ. of Central Lancashire, England;American Culture in the 1970s, 2009, etc.) in this deft exploration of the lyrics and activism of a singer-songwriter whose anti-capitalist radicalism has been buried in romantic celebration of "the Dust Bowl Troubadour." Few Americans realize that "This Land Is Your Land," written out of his strong dislike of Irving Berlin's sanctimonious "God Bless America," contains verses condemning private property and challenging the authoritarian state. The author uses many previously unpublished materials from the Woody Guthrie Archives to show the singer's efforts to expose "the system" in songs, poems and articles (his "Woody Sez" column ran for years in the People's Daily World). A Communist sympathizer, he was not one for political theory: "His greatest artistic and critical strength," writes Kaufman, was giving radical theory a human face. Beginning with his political awakening by California actor-activist Will Geer, who introduced Guthrie to progressive causes, the author chronicles the singer's increasing militancy during the Popular Front and Cold War eras, including work with Lee Hays, Pete Seeger and many others in left-wing circles. By 1956, when he was committed to a psychiatric hospital with neurological disintegration from Huntington's disease, the singer had become the "new patron saint of American folk music." Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 songs that exist in archives; others were never written down. His political edge was lost in the mass-market folk-music revival of the 1960s, but now flourishes in the work of progressive musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco and Emmylou Harris.

Not likely to hold wide appeal, but a solid choice for scholars and folk-music lefties.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252036026
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 861,222
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Will Kaufman

Will Kaufman is a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, England. He is the author of three previous books, most recently American Culture in the 1970s. Also a professional folksinger and multi-instrumentalist, he has performed hundreds of musical presentations on Woody Guthrie at universities, music festivals, and folk clubs throughout Europe and the United States.

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Read an Excerpt

Woody Guthrie, American Radical


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03602-6

Chapter One


On August 24, 1939, the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, shook hands across the table in Moscow after signing their mutual nonaggression pact. Josef Stalin stood behind them, beaming. He and Adolf Hitler were now allies, a situation that immediately sent the antifascist Left around the world into a tailspin. The Soviet Union—the mother of the Revolution—had entered into a pact with the devil. The major repercussions of the Hitler–Stalin Pact over the next few months would include the Nazi–Soviet invasion of Poland, the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, and the Red Army's attack on Finland. One minor repercussion was that an obscure American folksinger named Woody Guthrie lost his job at the Los Angeles radio station KFVD.

Guthrie had gone a step too far, singing his song "More War News" on his morning radio program:

    I see where Hitler is a-talking peace
    Since Russia met him face to face—
    He just had got his war machine a-rollin',
    Coasting along, and taking Poland.
    Stalin stepped in, took a big strip of Poland and give
      the farm lands back to the farmers.

    A lot of little countries to Russia ran
    To get away from this Hitler man—
    If I'd been living in Poland then
    I'd been glad Stalin stepped in—
    Swap my rifle for a farm ... Trade my helmet for a sweetheart.

Guthrie's boss at KFVD, J. Frank Burke Sr., was a leftist, but he was no Stalinist. When it came to Stalin—and in particular the invasion of Poland—he had no room for an apologist on his station. Guthrie was sent packing.

He had another job, but not one that his family could live on. His topical column "Woody Sez" was still running gratis in the San Francisco–based communist daily the People's World. He'd gotten the column through the paper's Los Angeles bureau chief, Ed Robbin, a fellow broadcaster on KFVD. The paper's editor, Al Richmond, recalled how Robbin had come to his office, dragging in tow a "young hillbilly singer from Oklahoma, who turned out to be socially conscious." Richmond also recalled what is nowadays often forgotten: what the safety of the Soviet Union meant to American communists and socialists as fascism took hold in Europe. The world's "first and only Socialist state" had initially sought alliances with the Western powers against Hitler, only to be rebuffed. The subsequent treaty with Germany, however distasteful, was defended by Communist Party ideologues as a diplomatic necessity. Nonetheless, it hit Richmond like "a megaton shock, stunning, sudden, wrenching." As he later admitted: "Unprepared, knocked off balance by this abrupt turn, our reflex defense of the treaty had elements of the frenetic. Scanning the People's World of those days one can find much that is reasonable and stands the test of time, and much folly and confusion. I will speak for myself: I was confused. One argument for the treaty was that it created a zone of peace. From this I deduced that surely Hitler would not strike eastward, and so thoroughly persuaded myself that even when the Nazis threatened Poland I gave my personal assurance to the liberal publisher of a modest Beverly Hills newspaper that they would not attack.... Despite my personal assurance Hitler invaded Poland two days later."

So did Stalin, two weeks after that. Nobody knows what opinion, if any, Woody Guthrie held about Stalin's purges of 1936–38, through which thousands of suspected "saboteurs and fascists" were executed; the purges were, even at the time, common knowledge for those American communists and fellow travelers brave enough to face the truth. No one knows what Guthrie thought of the great Ukrainian famine and the deaths of up to 20 million in 1932–33, the result of Stalin's brutal collectivization policy. Again, it was no secret to those in the American Left willing to confront it. It was enough that Guthrie spoke—or sang—his mind about Poland.

He'd once boasted: "My contract with KFVD don't give me enough money to get the bighead, but it gives me enough that I don't care what other people think about me." Those days were now gone. KFVD had been his home on the air for the past two years; Burke had given Guthrie his first big break in Los Angeles. Robbin recalled how Guthrie had arrived at KFVD in the summer of 1937—knocking on Burke's door and announcing: "Mr. Burke, I'd like to sing on this here station of yours, if you'd let me, and I don't need any money for it, I just want to sing my songs." Burke had told him that the station already had a hillbilly singer, to which—according to Robbin—Guthrie replied: "His songs are pretty and nice, I guess. Mine aren't so pretty, but they're songs that I learned or I wrote while I was doing stoop labor up and down the highways and byways of California, travelin' with my people in their broken-down old cars and with their kids with bellies swollen from hunger, their mouths full of the dust of Oklahoma. They were fighting to live somehow or other, in the shanties, and with the whole family workin' out there in the fields. That is the kind of song that I'm singin', and believe me, there's thousands of my people out there who would eventually be listenin' because they want someone to speak out for 'em. Why don't you try me for a while and see what kind of response we get?"

This version was myth, like so much else that was to come. Guthrie had done no "stoop labor up and down the highways and byways of California," although he had done some dishwashing, some sign painting, some busking on LA's street corners, and singing for pennies in the Skid Row bars. He hadn't come knocking on Burke's door to be a spokesman for his "people," but rather to see if he and his cousin, "Oklahoma" Jack Guthrie, might get a radio spot to kick-start what they hoped would be a lucrative cowboy music act (the terms country music and country and western had yet to be invented). It hadn't even been Woody's idea to hit KFVD; it was Jack's, because, he said, "You can get more jobs at saloons, churches and markets if you've got a radio program every day."

But Burke was willing to give them a hearing, and an air check was arranged. The surviving recording shows that, from the very first, Woody Guthrie could write and sing with a political bite to him:

    My banker put me down on the Skid Row.
    Oh, the banker put me down on the Skid Row.
    If you're a-hittin' it hard on the Hollerwood Boulevard,
    You might sleep tonight on the Skid Row.

    My senator sent me down on the Skid Row.
    My senator sent me down on the Skid Row.
    I thought he was tops but he's rotten as the crops
    And as filthy as the flops on the Skid Row.

Already Guthrie had developed a viable mode of political and economic critique based on his observations of a newly urban underclass. He disguised his bite with a veneer of faux naiveté, explaining that another audition song had come to him when he "sorta got to watchin' the ways of a big city":

    Brother John moved into town, he rented a flat and settled down,
    Lord, Lord, he's a gettin' them big city ways.
    Brought his wife and kids along, but fifteen dollars didn't last long,
    Lord, Lord, he's a gettin' them big city ways.

    The finance company right next door got his paycheck, then some more,
    Lord, Lord, he's a getting' them big city ways.
    The banker got his furniture and the auto company got his car,
    Lord, Lord, he's a getting' them big city ways.

Guthrie sang another song for his air check—"If You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi"—about an illegal blockade that had been set up by the Los Angeles Police Department, hundreds of miles outside their jurisdiction, to prevent the Dust Bowl migrants from entering the state of California unless they had fifty dollars or more to prove that they weren't "unemployable." The blockade had lasted only for a few months in 1936—it was gone by the time Guthrie arrived in California—but the memory of the insult was fresh enough to provoke a stinging musical critique. It was fairly strong stuff for someone who simply wanted to sing cowboy music and make a few bucks.

The Guthrie cousins got the job, playing for free on the station's 8:00 a.m. slot and happy for the opportunity to promote their live shows. Woody Guthrie kept his politics to himself during "The Oklahoma and Woody Show"—not that the station's management would have minded all that much (barring any overly Stalinist rhetoric). Burke and his son, Frank Jr., were on the far left of the Democratic Party. Frank Sr. had supported the visionary socialism of Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California campaign (EPIC), and both were staunch New Dealers. They gave airtime to all kinds of opinions, from the right-wing evangelism of Robert "Fighting Bob" Shuler to the Popular Front communism of The People's World, but their programming was, in the main, proudly of the non-Stalinist left, providing a bulwark, however minor, against the Roosevelt-hating reaction of William Randolph Hearst's KEHE radio station and the business-first agenda of the Chamber of Commerce's March of Progress broadcasts.

Jack Guthrie lasted two months before he concluded that he couldn't make a living out of music. Woody Guthrie joined up with a singer from Missouri, Maxine Crissman, and together they launched the "Woody and Lefty Lou" show on KFVD. Their surviving fan mail indicates that they were immediately popular with "working-class listeners, Dust Bowlers, and women." Their repertoire was dominated by hymns, country standards, and traditional ballads; but with the departure of his more commercially focused cousin, Guthrie was able to play more freely off of Crissman's "personal politics of standing up for the underdog." The duo began to venture deeper into direct social commentary—nothing particularly radical at first, simply aware:

    My mama and my papa
    Have eight children sweet and fine;
    Our house is such a little house,
    And soon there will be nine.

    And now today I kneel and pray
    Some million dollar man
    Will let my papa go to work;
    He'll do the best he can.

The pair's introduction of "Do Re Mi" into their airplay marked an early radical shift: they were in effect now taking on the LAPD, Governor Frank Merriam, the Los Angeles Times, the Chamber of Commerce, and the rest of the state's powerful anti-migrant bloc, which certainly hadn't been dismantled along with the "bum blockade." Guthrie pointed a finger—quietly and ironically, perhaps, but unquestionably:

    The Police at the Port of Entry say:
    You're number fourteen thousand for today!
    If you aint got the do re mi, folks,
    If you aint got the do re mi,
    Better hang on in Beautiful Texas,
    Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
    California is a Garden of Eden,
    A Paradise to live in or see,
    But, believe it or not, you won't find it so hot,
    If you aint got the do re mi.

Guthrie's critique was sly, suggestive. "The California newspapers and magazines," he said, "print purty pictures and purty descriptions of the Land of Sunshine and Paradise that is California. And they are right in what they print. They do this to bring folks out here to tour the country and drop off a few midwestern dollars, and to sell 'em some rale estate, like a lot or a farm, or a house. And this is all right. But they also cause all the fairly happy farm folks to swap their stock and machinery for a 'hoopy' or a 'jalopy' and come rattlin' thru to California with nothing but a run down car and a gallon of sorghum. They take the sorghum at the Boundary line, and the car breaks down at Los Angeles." His critique was comic, almost slapstick, crafted with a cartoonist's skill that managed, in spite of all hilarity, to emphasize the tragic conditions that the migrants faced upon their arrival in the Golden State:

    Got to California so dad gum broke,
    So dad gum hungry I thought I'd choke,
    I bummed up a spud or two,
    Wife fixed up some 'tater stew.
      Fixed th' kids a bait of it ...
      Looked like a tribe of thy-mometers runnin' around.

The radio audience loved it, sending in birthday cakes, clothes parcels, invitations to dinner, the odd dollar to "buy yourself and the lady a drink," and letters begging them: "Please don't go modern." Occasionally a listener would see through Guthrie's quickly developing "Okie" persona: "I don't enjoy that faked hill billy language that you give us, Woodie. The reason I know its faked is because I know that if you were really that ignorant, horses couldn't drag you up before a 'microbephone,' I come from the hills myself but I never heard any talking quite so bad as yours." Such criticisms were in the minority.

In the spring of 1938, Crissman quit singing on the grounds of ill health. Guthrie was now "Woody, the Lone Wolf," as his show was retitled. Before one of the broadcasts, Burke Sr. came to Guthrie with a proposal that would change his life and the course of American music. Burke had started a small newspaper, The Light, to promote the gubernatorial campaign of the progressive Democrat Culbert Olson, hoping to unseat Merriam. He asked Guthrie to head out to Bakersfield and farther into the San Joaquin Valley, to report on the conditions in the jungle camps and jails, all variously packed with migrants looking for work and—for those daring to organize into unions—getting their heads broken. Thanks to his radio show and his Oklahoma origins, Guthrie would be welcome where few Californians had been or would care to go. "You might even consider getting yourself arrested," Burke proposed.

Guthrie would ever recall what he saw on his travels—the squalid camps of migrant families squatted beneath a railroad bridge or on the banks of a filthy river, named, wherever they were, in honor of the president who, in spite of a long record of relief work on behalf of Belgium, Russia, and the victims of the great Mississippi flood of 1927, had—unaccountably, it seemed—resisted all calls for federal relief to the victims of the Depression. "The camp is called Hooversville," Guthrie wrote, "and if such a bad place as this was named after my name, I believe I'd commit suicide before morning. People take old rusty buckets, rip them apart, beat them out flat, and nail them onto a frame of rickety boards—and that's a plumb good house in Hooversville. It is garbage to garbage and water to water." He recalled the "4000 people hungry and dirty and bogged down" in the "shacktown called Hooversville ... There are flies crawling over babies faces. There are little pot bellies by the hundreds swelled up with the gas that is caused by malnutrition. There youll see the torn holes in the flour sack dresses that the kids wear. Red, fevered skin is showing through these clothes like the blistered hide of the several hundred thousand Okies that crawled and walked and marched across a couple of thousand miles of red hot desert to get from Oklahoma's trash pile to California's green pretty places." He turned disgust and outrage into poetry, building his verses on a foundation of neglect and despair that had been spreading across America since the Depression hit:

    Ramblin', gamblin', rickety shacks,
      That's Hooversvill;
    Rusty tin an' raggedy sacks
      Makes Hooversvill;
    On the skeeter bit end of th garbage dump,
    30 million people slump
    Down where the big rats run an' jump
      In Hooversville

He sought the most heartbreaking image to encapsulate the commodification of humanity, often with a grim honesty that would elude even John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, John Ford, or the other poets in word or image whose strategy, for the most part, was to ennoble the Dust Bowl migrants in the midst of their adversity. Guthrie's Okies, beyond desperation, could be far less heroic than Steinbeck's Ma Joad, far less stoic than Lange's Migrant Mother:

    Maybe you just didn't know
      That's Hooversville;
    Guess you didn't never go
      To Hooversville;
    Maybe you aint never seen
    The little girls around fifteen
    Sold for the price of a bowl of beans
        In Hooversville.

Guthrie had little in common with the popular image of the Dust Bowl
migrants he met in the camps—those fictionalized into Steinbeck's Joad family,
who would appear in The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. The Joads' real-life
counterparts, as one historian notes, "had not come to California out of a
sturdy yeoman farmer tradition, nor out of a pastoral landscape. They had
been victims at home too of an exploitative agricultural system: of tractors,
one-crop specialization, tenant insecurity, disease, and soil abuse." If
anything, Guthrie came from the exploiting class and an exploiting family;
his father, Charley, was a socialist-hating, fistfighting small-town politician,
real-estate agent, landlord, and sometime property swindler. Guthrie could
recall the flush times of his early childhood in Okemah, Oklahoma, where
his father "had to outwit, outsmart, and out-run a pretty long string of people
to have everything so nice":

      Papa went to town and made real-estate deals with other people, and he brought
      their money home. Mama could sign a check for any amount, buy every little
      thing that her eyes liked the looks of. Roy and Clara could stop off in any store
      in Okemah and buy new clothes to fit the weather, new things to eat to make
      you healthy, and Papa was proud because we could all have anything we saw.
      Our house was packed full of things Mama liked, Roy liked, Clara liked, and
      that was what Papa liked.


Excerpted from Woody Guthrie, American Radical by WILL KAUFMAN Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction xv

1 Awakenings 1

2 Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People 30

3 Almanac Days 55

4 Union War 82

5 Lonesome Radical Soul 110

6 Long Road to Peekskill 145

7 The Last Free Place in America 166

Conclusion: The Miners and the Mill 183

Notes 205

Sources 243

Index 257

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