“I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ round,” Woody Guthrie lamented in one of his most popular songs. A native of Oklahoma, he was still in his teens when he moved to Pampa, Texas, where he experienced the dust storms that would play such a crucial role in forming his identity and shaping his work. He later joined thousands of Americans who headed to California to escape the devastation of the Dust Bowl. There he entered the West Coast stronghold of the Popular Front, whose leftward influence on his thinking would continue after his move in 1940 to New York, where the American folk music renaissance began when Guthrie encountered Pete Seeger and Lead Belly.
Guthrie kept moving throughout his life, making friends, soaking up influences, and writing about his experiences. Along the way, he produced more than 3,000 songs, as well as fiction, journalism, poetry, and visual art, that gave voice to the distressed and dispossessed. In this insightful book, Will Kaufman examines the artist’s career through a unique perspective: the role of time and place in Guthrie’s artistic evolution.
Guthrie disdained boundaries—whether of geography, class, race, or religion. As he once claimed in his inimitable style, “There ain’t no such thing as east west north or south.” Nevertheless, places were critical to Guthrie’s life, thought, and creativity. He referred to himself as a “compass-pointer man,” and after his sojourn in California, he headed up to the Pacific Northwest, on to New York, and crossed the Atlantic as a merchant marine.
Before his death from Huntington’s disease in 1967, Guthrie had one more important trip to take: to the Florida swamplands of Beluthahatchee, in the heart of the South. There he produced some of his most trenchant criticisms of Jim Crow racism—a portion of his work that scholars have tended to overlook.
To map Guthrie’s movements across space and time, the author draws not only on the artist’s considerable recorded and published output but on a wealth of unpublished sources—including letters, essays, song lyrics, and notebooks—housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This trove of primary documents deepens Kaufman’s intriguing portrait of a unique American artist.
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DUST BOWL BLUES
Woody Guthrie's name is inextricably linked to one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of modern history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In this, as in so many other aspects of American identity, the power of myth is as important as the power of time and place. Yes, the great mass of Dust Bowl migrants streaming into California had been lumped together under the epithet "Okie," as though they all had come from Oklahoma (in fact, only a quarter of them came from there; the majority had come from Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado). Moreover, popular culture has cast the typical Dust Bowl migrant as an agricultural worker, while in reality the greatest number were blue- or white-collar town and city dwellers; only 12 percent of interviewed migrants cited "farm failure" as the cause of their displacement. The majority of them did not migrate as far as California, but rather moved only to the next town, the next county, or the nearest bordering state. Nonetheless, largely thanks to four cultural enterprises — John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939); the John Ford film of the same name (1940); the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and others (1937–42); and Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) — the stoic "Dust Bowl refugee" battling poverty, prejudice, and political oppression in California has become a signature American figure recognized all around the world.
Guthrie's various soubriquets — "th' Dustiest of the Dust Bowlers," "the Dust Bowl Balladeer," "the Okie Bard" — threaten to costume him as one more character out of Steinbeck's novel, the story of the evicted Oklahoma tenant farmers, the Joad family, displaced by the great dust storms of the thirties. Indeed, when the paid informer Hazel Huffman denounced Guthrie as a Communist before the Special Committee on UnAmerican Activities (the Dies Committee) in 1941, she erroneously described him as "one of the 'Joads,' or migratory workers" from Oklahoma. Guthrie indeed hailed from Oklahoma, but he spent only the first seventeen years of his life there before moving to the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa. The dust storms feature little, if at all, in his Oklahoma biography, as he made clear in his interviews with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress Recordings (recorded 1940; first released 1964):
John Steinbeck talks about one end of the Dust Bowl, and that's the Oklahoma end of it, and other people talk about the Colorado and the New Mexico end of it. But if you want to find the very big middle of these dust storms, where they get the blackest and thickest — where the wheat grows, the oil flows and the farmer owes — why, you just go to Amarillo, Texas, and you can spit within walking distance around there, and you'll find you a good dust storm to deal with.
On the same recording, Guthrie took the pains to further establish the distance between himself and the popular "Okie" image: "I wasn't in the class that John Steinbeck called 'the Okies' because my dad to start with was worth about thirty-five or forty thousand dollars, and he had everything hunky-dory. Then he started having a little bad luck." Later in the decade, as he looked back at the punditry and the sociological and political handwringing that had followed the Dust Bowl migration crisis and the proliferation of its imagery in news, literature, film, and photography, Guthrie hit out at the crude stereotyping that had ensued:
My people Are not quaint They're not colorful [................] It makes me sore to hear or to see or to read How you big long-haired writers Whack away at my people Chew and cut and saw away at my people Grind and drill and whittle away at them Trying to make out like you are their Savior Or their way shower Or their finder Or their discoverer
In spite of such caveats, however, Guthrie was perfectly happy to maintain his associations with Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, his native Oklahoma, and the Dust Bowl itself: "Th' Dustiest of the Dust Bowlers" was his own chosen moniker, even emblazoned on his business cards.
All of this is to assert the central place of Oklahoma in Guthrie's identity, even though he was still a teenager when he left the state. One of his most popular songs, one that he in fact never recorded (although his cousin Leon "Jack" Guthrie did record it, mendaciously claiming authorship), was "Oklahoma Hills," adopted in 2001 as the official state folk song. It establishes well enough Guthrie's nostalgia for a place that, in actual fact, was as much a site of familial and financial trauma as a boyhood prairie idyll. His family's house had burned down shortly after it was built; his older sister Clara had died in a coal-oil fire at the age of fourteen; his father had gone repeatedly and, for the most part, permanently bankrupt; his mother had succumbed to the devastation of Huntington's disease and died in the Oklahoma state mental asylum — and still, he wrote, "I feel like in those hills I still belong," depicting himself "riding [his] pony through the draw, / While the oak and blackjack trees / Kiss the playful prairie breeze."
The arcadian rural imagery notwithstanding, one crucial line stands out in "Oklahoma Hills": "While the black oil rolls and flows ..." Guthrie's hometown of Okemah became a boomtown with the discovery of oil there in 1920, when he was eight years old. The experience of growing up in an oil boomtown was highly formative, as it introduced, and to some extent normalized, the condition of transience that would color much of his life, just as it colored much of American life throughout the Depression. Even before witnessing the worst of the dust storms, Guthrie learned to accept the wildly protean nature of his early surroundings, both in Okemah and, afterward, in Pampa, as he wrote in his autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory (1943):
Oil boom towns come that way and they go that way. Houses aren't built to last very long, because the big majority of the working folks will walk into town, work like a horse for a while, put the oil wells in, drill the holes down fifteen thousand feet, bring in the black gushers, case off the hot flow, cap the high pressure, put valves on them, get the oil to flowing steady and easy into the rich people's tanks, and then the field, a big thick forest of drilling rigs, just sets there pumping oil all over the world to run limousines, factories, war machines, and fast trains. There's not much work left to do in the oil fields once the boys have developed it by hard work and hot sweat, and so they move along down the road, as broke, as down and out, as tough, as hard hitting, as hard working, as the day they come to town.
Elsewhere, Guthrie captured the sudden nervous energy of his birthplace upon its transformation by the discovery of oil. Okemah, he wrote, quickly became "one of the singinest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club, and razor carryingest of our ranch and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns." Very soon, the formerly bucolic town was swamped by "the Lawyer Man, Doctor Man, Merchant Man, Royalty Man, Lease Man, Tong Bucker Man, Pipe Liner Man, Greasy Gloves Man, Big Wrench Man, the Cowboy and the Cowman, the Spirit and the Hoodoo Man, the ladies for all of these, the girls, and the Mistresses for the Pool Stick and Domino Sharker, the Red Light Pimper and Sidewalk Barker."
Other aspects of Oklahoma history certainly resonated in Guthrie's early life, some that might prove surprising to later generations who know of Oklahoma as one of the most conservative states in the United States. At the time of Guthrie's birth in 1912 Oklahoma was a hotbed of agrarian radicalism that melded anticapitalism, labor agitation, and a particular brand of Christian socialism into the powerful political movement that saw Eugene Debs's American Socialist Party gain its greatest electoral successes of anywhere in the country. Local socialist newspapers such as the Sledge Hammer, the New Century, and the Sword of Truth carried the exhortations of Marxist preachers like Okemah's own E. F. McClanahan, calling for "a righteous government" — a "socialist movement" and "just society" in which workers could "organize and cooperate industrially." Even as late as 1917, when Guthrie was five years old, there was enough radical spirit left in the state to spark what became known as the "Green Corn Rebellion," when hundreds of Oklahoma's tenant farmers attempted a march on Washington to challenge the president, Woodrow Wilson, and the Conscription Act. The Industrial Workers of the World — "the Wobblies" — maintained a tenacious foothold in the Oklahoma oil fields until they were driven underground by the great "Red Scares" of 1919–20.
All this agitation made its mark on Woody Guthrie's own household. His father, Charlie, was a political firebrand — reactionary, for the most part, supporting the Ku Klux Klan not so much for their racism (which he also shared) as their hatred of socialism. He fired off a series of diatribes in the local press, under such alarmist titles as "Socialism the Enemy of Christian Religion," "Socialism Urges Negro Equality," and "Free Love the Fixed Aim of Socialism." Woody later recalled: "Papa was a hard nut on the topic of capitalism, Socialism, public ownership, and free enterprise, and loved the chance to quote pages and paragraphs out of the thousand-dollar leatherback law library he had owned ten or twelve years ago, back in Okemah. Papa had tried to teach me to hate and despise, and to insult and fight the Socialists in any spot I got the time and chance." Inevitably, as is so often the case, the parental pressure had opposite its intended effect:
At the age of about four or five years old, a long time before I went to school, I remember my dad used to teach me little political speeches and rhymes. And I'd climb up in a hay wagon around all the political meetings and rallies they had on the streets, and I'd make my little speeches. And it might be that I've turned out now where I don't believe the speeches anymore, and I make speeches just the opposite.
Guthrie was thus clearly primed for an acute political and social awakening when, in April 1935, the worst dust storms of the century ravaged the American Midwest. By then he had moved to Pampa to work for his father, who was running a ramshackle boardinghouse, following the dissolution of the family unit in Okemah. Pampa, Guthrie recalled, was "mainly a scattering of little old shacks. They was built to last a few months; built out of old rotten boards, flattened oil barrels, buckets, sheet iron, crates of all kinds, and gunny sacks. Some were lucky enough to have a floor, others just the dusty old dirt." Already Pampa was far down on its luck, with the end of the oil boom and the steady depopulation of the town: "Oil field drying out, the boom chasers trickled out down the road in long strings of high-loaded cars." It wasn't only the oil workers who were suffering. Nineteen thirty-five, recalled one Pampa resident, was "a year of disaster for the farmer — drought, dust, then a plague of grasshoppers." And if the "hoppers" weren't enough, there were the jackrabbits, swarms of them emerging in thousands from no one knew where, devouring what few plants and crops remained. "They ate everything green there was," one woman remembered. "The farmers had killed off the coyotes and that upset the natural order of things, and the rabbits just exploded and they would eat anything green they found."
If there was indeed a biblical aura to the plagues visited upon the Midwest in the "dirty thirties," as they came to be called, it was not lost upon many of the "Dust Bowlers" themselves. It was almost as though an angry God were visiting divine retribution upon a wicked people. After one of the worst of the "black blizzards," the monstrous dust storms that would blot out the sun at midday, an Oklahoma paper, the Boise City News, carried as its headline a quotation from the book of Ezekiel: "Behold, I have smitten my hand at thy dishonest gain which thou has made, and at thy blood which has been in the midst of thee." One Oklahoman, Caroline Henderson, wrote to the secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, of "a revival preacher" in her parish who had proclaimed the drought and the dust "a direct punishment for our sins": "Some would-be prophets are sure that the days of grace and mercy and rain for this great prairie land are forever past; that the future promises only hopeless and permanent desert conditions." Guthrie himself recalled for Lomax his witnessing of the great dust storm of April 14, 1935, in Pampa:
And so we watched the dust storm come up like the Red Sea closin' in on the Israel children. ... So we got to talking, you know. And a lot of people in the crowd that was religious minded, and they was up pretty well on the Scriptures, and they said, "Well, boys, girls, friends and relatives, this is the end. ... This is the end of the world. People ain't been livin' right. Human race ain't been treatin' each other right. And robbin' each other in different ways with fountain pens, guns, and havin' wars and killin' each other and shootin' around. So, the feller that made this world, he's worked up this dust storm. ..." Time had come when the river was there to cross.
In fact, the retribution (if so it was) had come not for any of these sins, but rather for those of the "sod busters" who had stripped the prairie of its natural protective grasses, mobilized an army of Ford tractors and combine harvesters, planted the harshest of cash crops — wheat and cotton, mostly — and brought about what Dust Bowl historian Donald Worster has called "the most severe environmental catastrophe in the entire history of the white man on this continent. In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to the American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants."
Of course, it would be an oversimplification to blame the dust and the drought solely for the great demographic upheaval that was to mark the latter half of the thirties. There was the fact that the majority of the Dust Bowl region's farmers were tenants, already caught in a spiral of debt brought about by previous years of poor harvests and virtual enslavement to the crop-lien system that had kept them permanently in the red. Behind this lay the greater tragedy of the Depression itself, which had hit workers and families far beyond the agricultural sector. There were merchants, grocers, teachers, salesmen, engineers, even bankers thrown onto the bread lines. But for Guthrie, it was the confluence of the oil bust and the dust that appears to have sparked his creative activism: "And there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about."
And so he tried his hand at transforming epic disaster into narrative song, drawing from a bag of rhetorical tricks to capture the range of emotions that could convey the immensity, the otherworldly nature of the Dust Bowl experience. There was, most immediately, the terror that he inscribed into one of the first of his Dust Bowl Ballads — "The Great Dust Storm," alternately titled "Dust Storm Disaster":
On the 14th day of April of 1935, There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky. You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black, And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
While the trope of "doom" is repeated consistently enough throughout this song, which indeed manages to convey the terror of the townsfolk "huddled into their oil boom shacks," the crying children battered by the winds and the sand, and the desolation left in the wake of the storm — the wheat fields, houses, barns, and fences left buried beneath "a rippling ocean of dust" — Guthrie seized early on the power of wry humor to reflect not only a social or political commentary but also the resilient spirit of the Dust Bowlers themselves.
Perhaps too little critical attention has been paid to the relationship between humor and such disasters as the Dust Bowl — an odd lapse, given the ubiquity of commentary, from Sigmund Freud to such comedic writers as Kurt Vonnegut, who has defined "black humor" or "gallows humor" as "laughing in the middle of political helplessness ... It's humor about weak, intelligent people in hopeless situations." It is true, very few personal recollections of the Dust Bowl are humorous, however much they, too, are the responses of powerless, helpless people caught up in a matrix of events far larger and more complex than they are able to comprehend. Worster succeeds in capturing — in a brief description — the immensity of this matrix and, implicitly, the helplessness of individuals or families caught up in it:
That the thirties were a time of great crisis in American, indeed, in world, capitalism has long been an obvious fact. The Dust Bowl, I believe, was part of that same crisis. It came about because the expansionary energy of the United States had finally encountered a volatile, marginal land, destroying the delicate ecological balance that had evolved there. We speak of farmers and plows on the plains and the damage they did, but the language is inadequate. What brought them to the region was a social system, a set of values, an economic order.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mapping Woody Guthrie"
Copyright © 2019 University of Oklahoma Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
INTRODUCTION: Einstein's Light Rays,
1. DUST BOWL BLUES,
2. I AIN'T GOT NO HOME,
3. CALIFORNIA, CALIFORNIA,
4. PASTURES OF PLENTY,
5. SOMEWHERE AT SEA,
6. NEW YORK TOWN,
CONCLUSION: Down or Up or Anywhere,
Acknowledgments and Permissions,