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Before Springsteen and before Dylan, there was Woody Guthrie. With "This Machine Kills Fascists," scrawled across his guitar in big black letters, Woody Guthrie brilliantly captured in song the experience of twentieth-century America. Whether he sang about union organizers, migrant workers, or war, Woody took his inspiration from the plight of the people around him as well as from his own tragic childhood.
From the late 1920s to the 1950s, Guthrie wrote the words to more than three thousand songs, including "This Land Is Your Land," a song many call America's unofficial national anthem. With a remarkable ability to turn any experience into a song almost instantaneously, Woody Guthrie spoke out for people of all colors and races, setting an example for generations of musicians to come. But Woody didn't have the chance to find everything he was looking for. He was ravaged by Huntington's disease, just like his mother, and died in a mental institution at the age of fifty-five.
Award-winning author, Elizabeth Partridge has taken the life of this songwriting genius and woven in his lyrics, and other rich materials to create a touching and highly entertaining portrait of a true talent.
About the Author
Elizabeth Partridge (www.elizabethpartridge.com) is a National Book Award finalist and author of several nonfiction books for children, including Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange; Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don't You Grow Weary; and the Printz Honor–winning John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Read an Excerpt
Preface: Rambling ’Round
"I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. I am out to fightthose kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood."
Woody Guthrie could never cure himself of wandering off. One minute he’d be there, the next he’d be gone, vanishing without a word to anyone, abandoning those he loved best. He’d throw on a few extra shirts, one on top of the other, sling his guitar over his shoulder, and hit the road. He’d stick out his thumb and hitchhike, swing onto moving freight trains, and hunker down with other traveling men in flophouses, hobo jungles, and Hoovervilles across Depression America.
He moved restlessly from state to state, soaking up songs: work songs, mountain and cowboy songs, sea chanteys, songs from the Southern chain gangs. He added them to the dozens he already knew from his childhood until he was bursting with American folk songs. Playing the guitar and singing, he started making up new ones: hard-bitten, rough-edged songs that told it like it was, full of anger and hardship and hope and love.Woody said the best songs came to him when he was walking down a road. He always had fifteen or twenty songs running around in his mind, just waiting to be put together. Sometimes he knew the words, but not the melody. Usually he’d borrow a tune that was already well known—the simpler the better. As he walked along, he tried to catch a good, easy song that people could sing the first time they heard it, remember, and sing it again later.
Woody sang his songs the old-fashioned way, his voice droning and nasal, the words sharp and clear. Promoters and club owners wanted him to follow their tightly written scripts and sing the melodious, popular songs that were on the radio. Whenever they came at him with their hands full of cash, Woody ran the other way. "I had rather sound like the cab drivers cursing at one another, like the longshoremen yelling, like the cowhands whooping and like the lone wolf barking, than to sound like a slick, smooth tongued, oily lipped, show person."
Just after New Year’s Day in 1940, Woody set off on one of his unannounced road trips. He left his wife and three kids in a shack in Texas and headed for New York City. It was a long, cold trip in the dead of winter, and every time he stopped in a diner, he heard Irving Berlin’s lush, sentimental song, "God Bless America," on the jukebox. It was exactly the kind of song Woody couldn’t stand, romanticizing America, telling people not to worry, that God would take care of everything.
Woody thought there was plenty to worry about. The Great Depression, which had begun in 1929, was grinding on. For years, desperate, hungry people had been tramping the roads and riding the rails, looking for work or handouts. In Europe another world war was raging, threatening to pull America into the bloody conflict.
Bits of tunes and snatches of words swirled in Woody’s mind, and a few weeks later in a cheap, fleabag hotel in New York City, his own song about America came together. Using an old Baptist tune for the melody, Woody wrote "This Land is Your Land." His song caught the bittersweet contrasts of America: the beauty of our country, and the desperate strength of people making do in impossibly difficult times. Across the bottom of the sheet Woody wrote in his neat script, "All you can write is what you see," and put the song away.
Writing about what he saw—and felt, and heard about, and read about—gave Woody plenty of material. During his lifetime he wrote down more than three thousand songs, taking stories from everywhere: the front page of the newspaper; union meetings and busted-up strikes; and the sights and sounds of America as he walked "that ribbon of highway."
In April 1944 Woody recorded "This Land is Your Land." When his good friend Pete Seeger heard the recording, he thought the song was one of Woody’s weaker attempts. Too simple, thought Pete, an accomplished folk singer himself. Later he would say, "That shows how wrong you can be." Over the years he watched as "This Land is Your Land" went from "one guitar picker to another," gathering momentum as it made its way across America and out into the world. Even after Woody’s death in 1967, the song kept spreading like wildfire.
Today, "This Land is Your Land" is sung all over the United States by just about everybody: school children, Scout troops, new immigrants, gospel choirs, and rest-home residents. More than half a century after Woody first recorded his song, Pete Seeger figures it has reached "hundreds of millions of people, maybe billions of people." Many Americans consider it our unofficial national anthem. Woody would be proud. Years before, he had written, "I am out to sing songs that’ll prove to you that this is your world, no matter how hard it has run you down and rolled over you. I am out to sing the songs that will make you take pride in yourself."Over and over again, he did just that.
Chapter Six: 1940–1941
Hitting the Big Time
With all these poor folks wandering around the country as homeless as little doggies, what I should do is strap on a couple of six-shooters and blow open the doors of the bank and feed people and give them houses. The only reason I don’t do that is because I ain’t got the guts.
Woody found a room at the Han- over House, a ch- eap, fleabag hotel near Times Square. At a critical juncture in his life, Woody was full of impassioned ideas about what was wrong with the country and how to fix it. He knew how to write and sing songs he was sure would help, but he wasn’t connected yet with people who could get his message out.
Alone and frustrated, he fought his way out the only way he knew: by writing another of his hard-bitten songs about how life really was. This time he took on Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America."
Sitting in his run-down hotel room, Woody pulled out a piece of lined paper and wrote across the top of the page, "God Blessed America." One by one he wrote down the verses that had been forming in his mind, until he had six in all. He wrote about what he saw as he rambled: rolling dust clouds, hungry people waiting in relief lines, private property signs. And with a tender simplicity, he wrote of the splendor and joy of being out on the road, walking across America’s golden valleys and diamond deserts.
In his even, clear writing, he added at the bottom, "All you can write is what you see," and signed it "Woody G., February 23, 1940."
As he sat staring out the window of his room, Woody’s mercurial mind jumped to the streets of New York City:
I saw how the poor folks lived, and then I saw how the rich folks lived, and the poor folks down and out and cold and hungry, and the rich ones out drinking good whiskey and celebrating and wasting handfuls of money at gambling and women, and I got to thinking about what Jesus said, and what if He was to walk into New York City and preach like He used to. They’d lock Him back in jail as sure as you’re reading this.
In those bleak, cold winter months he wrote several versions of his song "Jesus Christ," then a second song, "A Hard Working Man is Jesus." Though angered by the "meek shall inherit the earth" aspect of Christianity, Woody embraced Jesus as a man working outside the system, dedicated to the needs of the poor. For a few weeks, his mind returned again and again to Jesus. "It ain’t just once in awhile that I think about this man, its mighty scarce that I think of anything else," he wrote.
While Woody was rambling the streets, writing songs and staving off the loneliness he felt at night, Will Geer had been busy putting together a "Grapes of Wrath" benefit concert. Based on Steinbeck’s novel, the movie had just opened at the Rivoli Theater in New York City. Appalled by life in the California fields, people wanted to help. Will asked a group of leading folk singers to appear in the show and made sure Woody, an authentic Oakie, would be there.
On March 3, 1940, Aunt Molly Jackson led off the evening at the Forrest Theater. The wife of a leading coal striker, she’d been organizing the miners and writing songs about the abysmal conditions of the Kentucky mines until death threats forced her to relocate to New York City.
Woody milled around in the wings as she sang, the heat from the lights bringing out the musty smell of the theater. When Aunt Molly finished, he ambled out, wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and blue jeans. After scratching his head with his guitar pick, he greeted the crowd with a simple "Howdy" and stood looking into the darkened theater. Finally he launched into a song, then he was going—singing his dust-bowl songs in a flat Oklahoma twang and spinning out stories.
Standing in the wings, Alan Lomax was galvanized by Woody. Only twenty-three years old, he was already the Acting Director for the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington. He and his father, John Lomax, had been crossing and recrossing the United States, recording folk music they thought would soon be lost forever.
Alan Lomax was afraid that folk music, the real music of America, was a dying tradition with popular songs constantly blaring from radio stations across America. When he heard Woody singing, he knew instantly he was listening to someone who understood the power and strength of folk songs, yet knew how to adapt them into political songs. The songs Woody wrote were brilliant, easy to learn and remember. Lomax was sure he was listening to a genius. He could barely wait for the concert to end so he could talk with Woody.
The last performer was a tall, gawky young man named Pete Seeger, who came onto the stage with a five-string banjo and launched into the "Ballad of John Hardy." It was late, the audience was tired, and this was Pete’s very first appearance. He rushed his playing until his fingers jumbled and froze up, his mind went blank, and he couldn’t remember the words. The audience clapped politely at his attempt, and Pete fled the stage.
Later many people, including Alan Lomax, felt the Grapes of Wrath concert was the spark that popularized folk music in America. The songs were haunting, joyful, tragic, and revealing; the singers passionate, determined to create social change. The lineup that night seemed to cover just about everything, from ballads about the bloody miners’ struggle in Kentucky to the powerful prison work songs of the Deep South.
As soon as he was able to talk with Woody after the concert, Lomax wasted no time telling him what he wanted: When could Woody get down to Washington, D.C., to be recorded? How many songs did he know, anyway?
Nothing was holding Woody in New York, and in about a week he was in Washington, staying with Lomax and his wife. He turned down their offer of a bed, and fell asleep sprawled on the couch, or threw his lumber jacket over his shoulders and slept on the floor. Rather than eat at the table, he insisted on standing over the sink, saying, "I don’t want to get softened up. I’m a road man." Pete Seeger, working at the archive with Lomax for fifteen dollars a week, turned up frequently, eager to learn anything he could from this singing "road man."
Lomax was amazed when he brought Woody to the recording studio on March 21, 1940. Woody knew hundreds of folk songs—traditional, gospel, cowboy, country, and mountain songs he had picked up in Oklahoma, Texas, and California. Then there were dozens more songs he had adapted to his politics, modifying tunes and putting new words to folk songs he knew. Between singing his songs, he talked about his life and philosophies with Lomax.
Woody explained how he saw the blues.
I’ve always called it being lonesome. You can get lonesome for a lot of things. You can get lonesome for a job, lonesome for some spending money, lonesome for some drinking whiskey, lonesome for a good time, pretty gals, wine, women, and song. Thinking that you are down and out and disgusted and busted and can’t be trusted, why, it gives you a lonesome feeling. Somehow the world has sorta turned against you.
Woody was also painfully honest when Lomax asked him if he’d gone through any hard times in Oklahoma. "I never did talk about it much," Woody said, but then he went on, almost as if he couldn’t stop himself, to describe his sister Clara’s fiery death. He claimed Clara either set herself on fire, or caught fire accidentally. "There’s two different stories got out about it," Woody said. "She had to stay home and do some work and she caught afire while she was doing some ironing that afternoon on the old kerosene stove. She run around the house about twice before anybody could catch her, and the next day she died." Woody cleared his throat, the microphone amplifying the sound.
"And my mother . . . that was a little bit too much for her nerves or something . . . I don’t know exactly how it was, but anyway, my mother died in the insane asylum at Norman, Oklahoma."
Woody was silent for a long moment, then spoke again. "My father, mysteriously for some reason, caught fire. All us kids had to scatter out."
Suddenly Woody veered off, leaving the vulnerable, painful parts of his childhood behind. He launched into a funny story and never revealed anything so personal again.
His recording done, Woody returned to New York. He hadn’t been back long when a record producer approached him about writing a song based on The Grapes of Wrath. Woody asked Pete Seeger, in town visiting a friend, if he had a typewriter so he could work on the song.
"Have you read the book?" Pete asked him.
"Nope," Woody responded, "but it’s all in the movie—good movie."
There was a typewriter where Pete was staying, so he invited Woody over, who brought a half-gallon jug of cheap wine. For the next few hours, Pete watched Woody type a line or two, stand up, and pluck out something on his guitar, then sit back down to work out a few more lines. Around ten Pete finally fell asleep. When he woke up in the morning, the jug was empty, Woody was asleep under the table, and the finished song was in the typewriter. Written to the tune of "John Hardy," Woody’s seventeen-verse song "Tom Joad" summarized the entire story.
Woody considered his song the best he’d ever done. Early in May 1940, at Lomax’s urging, Victor Records recorded an album of Woody singing "Tom Joad," "Dust Bowl Refugee," "I Ain’t got No Home," "Do Re Mi," "So Long It’s Been Good to Know You," and eight of his other dust-bowl songs. Woody was ecstatic—and shocked—when he was paid three hundred dollars for his day’s work.
For the first time in his life, Woody put a down payment on a new car. He talked Pete Seeger into coming with him, and headed out to visit Mary and the kids in Texas.
They made a odd pair. Pete was tall, lanky, and extremely naive, from an upper-class New England family. Woody couldn’t understand Pete. "I can’t make him out," he told a friend. "He doesn’t look at girls, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, the fellow’s weird."
Always glad to be back on the road, Woody was thrilled to be driving a brand-new car. Finally, he didn’t have to worry about engine trouble—nothing to seize up or break down. In fact, the car was so powerful he bragged to Lomax, "In the Blue Ridge Mountains me and Pete almost got it to climb a tree."
Woody sent a constant stream of letters from the road to family and friends. He signed off, "Take it easy, but take it," a habit he would continue for years.
Despite driving a brand-new car, Woody still liked to travel as cheaply as possible. As they drove west, he taught Pete how to get free drinks in a bar: Take your banjo out of the case, go inside, and order a nickel beer.
"Sooner or later somebody’s gonna say, ‘kid, can you pick that thing?’" Woody explained. "Don’t be in too big a hurry, just keep on sippin’ your beer. Sooner or later somebody’s gonna say, ‘kid, I got a quarter for you, if you pick us a tune.’ Now you swing it around and play your best tune."
They drove through Tennessee and stopped at the Highlander Folk School, a training center for labor organizers. Then they sped west, rolling across Arkansas and into Oklahoma, where they saw Roy and Charley Guthrie. They only stayed a few hours, though: Pete felt a painful tension between Woody and his father.
In Oklahoma City they dropped in on Bob and Ina Wood, local Communist party organizers, who immediately sent them down to the local migrant camp by the Canadian River to entertain the desperate, down-and-out families. That evening, Ina, an ardent feminist, lectured Woody for never writing any songs about the devotion and sacrifices made by the women in the labor movement.
Before going to bed, Woody borrowed her typewriter and turned out a crisp, beautiful song, "Union Maid," about a union woman who always stood her ground and wasn’t intimidated by the "goons and the ginks and the company finks." The song took off like lightning, and for the next decade it was Woody’s most well-known song, sung on picket lines and in union halls across the country.
Oh you can’t scare me,
I’m sticking to the union,
Sticking to the union,
Till the day I die.
Finally they arrived in Pampa. Pete was struck by how shy Mary was, and desperate. She had the weary, worn-out look of a young mother with too much responsibility and not enough help. And Woody’s erratic behavior had forced her to fall back on her parents for support, a difficult situation for everyone. "Is that the price of genius?" Pete asked himself. "Is it worth paying?"
But his allegiances were split. Years later he said, "Lord, Lord, he turned out song after song!"
When Mary’s mother came over for a visit, she grabbed Pete by the shoulders and shook him. "You’ve got to get that man to start treating my daughter right!" But nobody could make Woody do what he didn’t want to do. Pete took off, and a few days later, so did Woody.
Back in New York, Woody kept bumming from place to place. One of the other singers from the Grapes of Wrath concert, Leadbelly, let Woody sleep on the Murphy bed, which folded out of the wall in the living room. Leadbelly would get up early, and his wife, Martha, insisted Woody get up, shave, and wash while she made breakfast.
Already in his early fifties, Leadbelly was a burly, tender man with a violent streak that moved at quicksilver speed. Jailed twice for murder, he’d spent years in the repressive prisons of the Deep South. Woody loved being around Leadbelly, soaking up musical lore from him.
In concerts, Leadbelly sang full out, his deep voice booming over the crowd, while he strummed wildly at the guitar, jumping up from time to time to tap dance or do the "buck and wing." Known for his haunting renditions of blues and work songs, Leadbelly sometimes explained the blues to his audience.
The blues is like this. You lay down some night and you turn from one side of the bed to the other, all night long. It’s not too cold in that bed, and it ain’t too hot. But what’s the matter? The blues has got you and they want to talk with you.
Woody especially loved Leadbelly’s gentle side. Mornings in the quiet apartment, Leadbelly played at about half-speed, gently picking quiet tunes on his twelve-string guitar.
He had a slow-running, easy, deep quiet way about him, that made me see that his strength was like a little ball in his hands, and that his thoughts ran as deep in color as the lights that played down from the sky and onto his face. .
On August 27, Woody signed a contract for $150 a week to be on a radio show called "Back Where I Come From." While he was waiting for the show to begin in late September, he met up with Cisco Houston, who’d sung with him and Will Geer in the California migrant camps. Cisco found a job as a doorman in a burlesque house on Forty-second Street and decided to stick around New York for a while.
Tall and handsome, Cisco was a generous man with a warm, lonely tenor voice, which harmonized beautifully with Woody’s. Delighted to see him, Woody quickly persuaded Cisco to join him singing in clubs and bars. Like Matt Jennings back in Pampa, Cisco loved music, didn’t talk much, and was awed by Woody’s freewheeling, wild life. Cisco would prove to be one of Woody’s closest friends.
Shortly after Cisco showed up, the Model Tobacco Company signed Woody on as the host of their radio show for two hundred dollars a week. Woody was overwhelmed by the sudden attention and huge sums of money being thrust at him. "They are giving me money so fast I’m using it to sleep under," he wrote Lomax. He sent Mary and the kids the unbelievable sum of three hundred dollars.
But all the money being offered Woody raised serious questions for him. What was he, a poor Oakie, doing taking in so much money when people everywhere were hungry? Was he selling out?
And once again his politics surfaced as a problem. Was he or wasn’t he a Communist party member? Big companies like Model Tobacco couldn’t afford to have Communists on their shows—they’d lose all their sponsors. Woody wrote a nervous, defensive letter to Lomax.
They called me a Communist and a wild man and everything you could think of but I don’t care what they call me. I ain’t a member of any earthy organization my trouble is I really ought to go down there in the morning and just join everything.
The Model Tobacco Company believed him, and when the show aired in November 1940, Woody rented an apartment and sent for Mary and the kids. Mary bundled the kids onto a train, arriving three days later in Grand Central Station. Woody was nowhere to be seen, and Mary was petrified by the enormous, crowded station. She dragged the kids around the station in a panic looking for Woody before piling them into a taxi, giving the driver the address Woody had sent her. Finally Woody showed up at the apartment, delighted to see them, and drove them all to the Bronx Zoo in his new car.
Mary and the kids settled quickly into the apartment. It was the nicest place they’d ever lived in. For the first time in their lives together, Woody and Mary had plenty of money. They could hire a sitter to watch the kids and go out at night. It was almost too much for Mary to believe. She had been right all along, Woody was making it big. All those whispering neighbors in Pampa were wrong. Woody was being recorded, and playing and singing on the radio. Who knew what was ahead?
To his dismay, Woody found the Model Tobacco show was tightly scripted. The producers insisted Woody sing only his mildest songs. When he narrated, he wasn’t allowed to make wisecrack political asides—everything had to be read off the script. For a couple weeks Woody swallowed his pride and did as he was told, but he found it humiliating to follow other people’s directions. Without the sly political jabs, and his caustic, hard-hitting songs, he was just another country hick, lost and overwhelmed by the big city. As the weeks went by, his mood worsened. He found everything frustrating, even having his family with him. He wrote a takeoff on one of his own songs, "It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song."
By the time the holidays came, Mary could feel something in Woody hitting the explosion point. Cisco dropped by on Christmas Eve, and to his deep embarrassment, Woody talked him into going out to a nearby bar. It was early Christmas morning before they returned.
On New Year’s Eve Woody played at a fancy fund-raiser Will Geer had set up. The women were dressed in full-length evening gowns and the men in white shirts and tuxedos. The room was packed with wealthy, important people. Woody sang three or four songs, very badly, with his eyes shut. Will slipped over to him and asked him why his eyes were closed.
"All them white shirts and diamonds are blinding me," said Woody.
Will, furious with Woody, whispered to him that these were some of the most important people in New York.
"They act like it," Woody replied.
A few days later, Woody suddenly announced to Mary that they were leaving town. Mary was frustrated and upset. Woody was throwing everything away—again. She figured there must be something in him that rejected steadiness, or success. Something. It sure didn’t make any sense.
That evening she and Woody ran up and down the stairs to their apartment, cramming what they could into the car, leaving everything else. In the middle of the night they pulled out of town.
It was a strange, frightening trip. They ran into a terrible wind-and-rain storm in Washington, where Sue said she wanted to go home and asked her mother where home was. Mary didn’t know what to say. By this time she had no idea, and she was pretty sure Woody didn’t either.
Their crazy, wild rush across America took them all the way to a dilapidated hotel in Columbia, California, an old ghost town in the Sierra foothills.
Woody was restless and agitated. He didn’t want to be in New York, but he wasn’t happy in a tiny, deserted town either. After a few weeks he told Mary they were moving again, this time back to Los Angeles.