Mention Woody Guthrie, and people who know the name are likely to think of the “Okie Bard,” dust storms behind him, riding a boxcar or walking a red-dirt road, a battered guitar strapped to his back. But unlock Guthrie from the confines of rural folk and Hollywood mythology, as Will Kaufman does here, and you’ll find an abstract painter and sculptor who wrote about atomic energy and Ingrid Bergman and developed advanced theories of dialectical materialism and human engineering—in short, a folk singer who was deeply engaged with the art, ideas, and issues of his time.
Guthrie may have been born in the Oklahoma hills, but his most productive years were spent in the metropolitan centers of Los Angeles and New York. Machines and their physics were among his favorite metaphors, fast cars were his passion, and airplanes and even flying saucers were his frequent subjects. His career-long immersion in radio, recording, and film inspired trenchant observations concerning mass media and communication, and he contributed to modern art as a prolific abstract painter, graphic artist, and sculptor.
This book explores how, through multiple artistic forms, Guthrie thought and felt about the scientific method, atomic power, and war technology, as well as the shifting dynamics of gender and race. Drawing on previously unpublished archival sources, Kaufman brings to the fore what Guthrie’s insistently folksy popular image obscures: the essays, visual art, letters, verse, fiction, and voluminous notebook entries that reveal his profoundly modern sensibilities.
Woody Guthrie emerges from these pages as a figure whose immense artistic output reflects the nation’s conflicted engagement with modernity. Capturing the breathtaking social and technological changes that took place during his extraordinarily productive career, Woody Guthrie’s Modern World Blues offers a unique and much-needed new perspective on a musical icon.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Modern Life
Guthrie's birth on July 14, 1912, came only five years after Oklahoma had achieved statehood and nine years after the Fort Smith and Western Railroad had reached the town. His birthplace, Okemah, was itself poised on the frontier of modernity. As early as 1909, twenty-seven years before the Rural Electrification Act, a citizen by the name of W. H. Dill had launched a rudimentary electrical service in Okemah, placing the whole town on a single breaker. Still, most families, including that of Charlie and Nora Guthrie, were lighting their homes with kerosene lamps. Charlie — Woody's father — was certainly attuned to the prospects of modernity. The same year that Dill electrified Okemah, the town's newspaper reported that Charlie Guthrie had purchased Okemah's first automobile (a Chalmers) and had taken Nora on a drive over the rough dirt roads to Kansas City and back. Nora herself was also a pioneer of sorts; she and her family, Woody would recall, "had one of the first phonographs in that county." For a time, Charlie was prosperous, a local politician and real estate speculator. The agricultural production demands of World War I enabled him to capitalize on farm land, earning him, at one point, thirty farms that he rented out, a number of fine homes in the town, and his own hill farm breeding "prizewinning Hereford cattle, as well as hogs and pedigreed hunting dogs." His currency, as his son later wrote: "Land leases. Royalties. Deeds and Titles." The revenue from these sources, along with Guthrie's position as clerk of the Okfuskee County Court, allowed his family to live in relative luxury. His children — Clara, Roy, and Woody — along with their mother, especially enjoyed summer and weekend afternoons watching the movies at Okemah's Crystal Theater, sparking Woody's lifelong passion for the cinema (which would later often be camouflaged by his overbearing rhetoric condemning the pernicious influence of Hollywood).
In 1920, with the Guthrie family already shaken by the loss of fourteen-year-old Clara, fatally burned in a coal-oil fire, a major economic slump hit Oklahoma. Charlie's tenants began to default on their rents and mortgages. Within a year he was bankrupt. In desperation, he seized on the possibilities offered by the nascent automobile industry, buying a tractor with a view to securing county contracts to drag the dirt roads. As the Okemah Ledger reported, "Mr. Guthrie takes this work not only for the money that he secures from the work, but his pleasure at seeing good roads in the county, and expects to have the best dragged roads in Okfuskee County." Thus would begin a lifetime of relying on hand-to-mouth jobs involving automobiles whenever Charlie's fortunes failed.
A potential reprieve was offered by the discovery of oil, first at Spring Hill, nine miles from Okemah, and then at nearby Cromwell and Seminole. By 1922 — the year that Woody's younger sister, Mary Jo, was born — Okemah was an oil-boom town, a major supply center, thanks mostly to its railroad station. As Woody later wrote, the whirlwind of modernity hit the town with full force and with mixed results for his family: "My dad met the new comer, talked, traded, and built us a new six room house. But the speed and hurry, all of this pound and churn, roar and spin, this staggering yell and nervous scream of our little farm town turning into an Oil and Money Rush, it was too much of a load on my Mother's quieter nerves. She commenced to sing the sadder songs in a loster voice, to gaze out our window and to follow her songs out and up and over and away from it all, away over yonder in the minor keys."
The population of Okemah quickly jumped from two thousand to as high as fifteen thousand, but a quiet trader like Charlie Guthrie was no match for the sharp, experienced speculators used to exploiting the rushes of the oil boom. After a brief year of success, he was bankrupt again. As Charlie struggled to provide for his family, Woody, now a young teenager, began to learn the harmonica, his first musical instrument. He would later recall, in a 1940 interview with Alan Lomax, that he had heard "the French harp" being played by "a boy that shined shoes" outside Okemah's barbershop: "That was 'The Railroad Blues' that the colored boy was playing when I walked past the barbershop door. ... I said, 'Where in the world did you learn it?' 'Oh,' he said, 'I just lay here and listen to the railroad whistle and whatever it say, I say too.'" Thus, the first sounds that Woody learned to translate into musical language were the sounds of early-twentieth-century modernity — not the pastoral song of birds or yelps of hounds but the lonesome whistle and chuff of the freight train.
The summer of 1929 saw seventeen-year-old Woody embarking on his first experience as a hobo, thumbing lifts and hopping freights from Okemah through Houston to the Gulf and back again. In spite of the hobo legend that was to grow around him, Woody's intermittent episodes in hoboing were relatively few throughout his life, but they were important in his development as an observer of American conditions. After his brief return to Okemah that summer, Woody packed up and went to Pampa, Texas, to join his father, who was now running a boomtown flophouse and brothel in the seedy section known as Little Juarez. (His mother, suffering from the barely understood Huntington's disease, had been committed to what was then called the Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, Oklahoma.) When Woody learned of his mother's death in the state asylum, he consoled himself, among other ways, by teaching himself the guitar, largely through copying Carter Family records.
Hungry for knowledge but indifferent to formal education (he would never finish high school), Woody ransacked the Pampa public library for books on all topics, particularly world religions, Eastern philosophy, and psychology. He ordered a raft of correspondence courses on literature, law, religion, and medicine — as his Pampa friend, musical comrade, and future brother-in-law Matt Jennings recalled, "ologies of all sorts and kinds." He formed a band — the Corncob Trio — with Jennings and another friend, Cluster Baker, and together they turned to the infant country music industry for inspiration, wearing down the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Soon they were playing at markets and barn dances across the Texas Panhandle, as well as on local radio stations.
In 1931, Woody embarked on an automobile adventure with his father and other family members, all packed into a ramshackle Model-T truck in hopes of locating a fabled silver mine supposedly staked by Charlie's father, Jerry P. Guthrie, in the Chisos Mountains along the Texas-Mexico border. Although they never found the mine, the trip wasn't wholly fruitless: it became the basis of Guthrie's second autobiographical novel, Seeds of Man, written in 1946–47 and published posthumously in 1977. Two years later, Woody married Matt Jennings's sister, Mary, having wooed her by a number of means, including dedicating to her a performance of the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on a Panhandle radio station. The following year he wrote what he maintained was his first song, "Old Gray Team of Hosses," a slapstick parlor number reflecting the coming of modernity to a rural backwater, signaled by the arrival of a Ford car that spooks a team of horses pulling a wagon with the protagonist and his belle. This song inaugurated in Woody a lifelong thread of writing about cars and driving.
Newly married, Woody struggled to make ends meet. With a preternatural talent for the graphic arts, he established himself as an itinerant sign painter for businesses around the Panhandle, but life in Pampa was turned on its head in April 1935, when the worst dust storms of the century buried much of the Midwest, including the Panhandle. This was modernity coming home with a vengeance, ironically a mere two years after the promoters of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair — the "Century of Progress" exhibition — had boasted in its visitors' programs, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms." As the historian Donald Worster has noted, it was precisely science, industry, and humans that were responsible for the ecological disaster that first brought Woody Guthrie into the broader public sphere, namely through the "highly mechanized factory farms" that had overrun the plains: "This is how and why the Dust Bowl came about. ... The sod had been destroyed to make farms to grow wheat to get cash." Thus, in a short period of time, a mere two decades, the very machines that had served as poster icons of progress in the early twentieth century — the Ford tractors and combine harvesters — had become rampaging agents of destruction, telescoping labor hours into seconds and, in stripping the prairie of its protective grasses, undoing the patient natural work of millennia.
In November, Woody and Mary's first child, Gwendolyn, was born. Her parents had no way of knowing that she carried the gene for the Huntington's disease that would end her life at the age of forty-one, but something about her conception and birth sparked Woody's fascination with biology. He began to spend hours peering into a microscope borrowed from Mary's doctor, watching the microorganisms fighting the evolutionary struggle that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.
The year 1936 saw Woody first hitting the highway and the rails in search of work to support his family. With the roads now flooded with newly indigent hitchhikers, Woody turned more and more to the boxcars, embarking on his most sustained period of freight-hopping. He drifted through Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, where he first saw the notorious "Bum Blockade" illegally erected at the state line by the Los Angeles Police Department, who were determined to prevent an influx of fellow-American migrants into the Golden State. With a handful of money gained by odd jobs, sign painting, and soda jerking, Woody returned to Pampa, where his interest in socialism took root in the wake of all he had seen.
In the spring of 1937, and with Mary pregnant with their second child, Sue (who would, like her older sister, succumb to Huntington's disease at the age of forty-one), Guthrie headed for California, traveling mostly by foot and by thumb. He had intended to support himself through sign painting, but once in California the music took over. Woody hooked up with a cousin — a singer and guitarist going by the name of "Oklahoma" Jack Guthrie — who was aiming to cash in on the "Singing Cowboy" craze sweeping Hollywood and further afield, thanks to the films and recordings of Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers, and lesser lights. Together, in cowboy garb, the two Guthries played cowboy shows, rodeos, vaudeville houses, movie theaters, and promotional venues. Through Jack, Woody met a transplanted Missourian, Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman, with whom he would soon form a singing partnership. In July, Jack and Woody secured a spot on the progressive Los Angeles radio station KFVD, shortly to be joined by Crissman. Before long, the station manager, J. Frank Burke, offered them three spots a day; the fan mail rushed in. This was Woody's first taste of "big time" urban radio, for although KFVD was neither as large nor as powerful as the networks broadcasting from coast to coast, it was technologically better equipped than the small stations of Pampa and Amarillo. As Woody's later singing partner Lee Hays recalled: "The radio station was full of all kinds of sound effects. There were thunder machines, lightning machines, inner sanctum squeaky doors and electric organs, coconut shell devices. ... Woody would wander around the studio rattling and banging and shaking on these things, just having a hell of a good time."
In fact, Los Angeles offered Guthrie a new, comprehensive education in the dynamics of modernity. It was the largest city he had ever seen. Soon he was writing songs and notebook observations about the urban sprawl, the noise, the traffic, and the smog, often from the highly fabricated viewpoint of a rural rube making his first encounter with the big city. In reality, Guthrie adapted to the relative sophistication and pace of urban modernity with little trouble; if anything, he relished it. He would, for the most part, remain an urban dweller for the rest of his life. Crissman recalled him dragging her into the city's used bookstores, engaging in intense discussion on all topics with the proprietors, and introducing her to impressionism and other modern art forms at the Los Angeles museums and galleries.
Eventually the pressures of performing and broadcasting took their toll on Crissman's health, and she resigned from the station and from the duo with Guthrie in June 1938. During a brief hiatus, Burke — also the editor of a progressive newspaper, the Light — offered Guthrie a commission to explore the migrant camps and Hoovervilles proliferating across California and to file his reports by telephone. Guthrie would forever remember what he learned through this commission, his entry into the world of journalism: "I hated the false front decay and rot of California's fascistic oil and gas deals, the ptomaine poison and brass knucks in the jails and prisons, the dumped oranges and peaches and grapes and cherries rotting and running down into little streams of creosote poisoned juices."
At this time, Guthrie was introduced to Ed Robbin, the Los Angeles correspondent for the Communist Party daily, People's World. Robbin had three spots a week on KFVD, and he and Guthrie became firm friends. It is likely that this was Guthrie's first personal, in-depth encounter with the world of Judaism and the politics of Zionism (both of which would inform his second marriage into a Jewish family). Robbin was instrumental in bringing Guthrie into the West Coast's progressive circles, securing his first performances for union and Communist Party events. Through Robbin, Guthrie met Al Richmond, the editor of People's World, who took him on as a columnist and cartoonist for the paper. Between May 1939 and early 1940, Guthrie would contribute over 170 of his "Woody Sez" columns, as well as eighty-two cartoons.
Guthrie later recalled: "I went to fancy Hollywood drinking parties and rubbed my elbows with the darkling glasses that they wore over their eyes to keep down everything. I met up with an actor named Will Geer and ... we drove my '31 Chevvery around the sad canyons to play for migrant strikers. "Robbin had introduced Guthrie to Geer — later the grandfather on the popular television series The Waltons — and Geer became Guthrie's most influential political mentor. Through Geer, Guthrie had his first experience as a film actor (albeit a nonspeaking extra), along with his pregnant wife, Mary, who had by now joined him in Los Angeles. The film was celebrated documentarian Pare Lorentz's The Fight for Life (1940), a dramatized tribute to the work of the Chicago Maternity Center, whose dedicated, overworked doctors and nurses ventured daily into the slums, shack towns, and tenements to bring — as someone in the film declares — "modern science to the poor women of the city."
Geer brought Guthrie further into Hollywood circles, introducing him to the likes of the directors D. W. Griffith and Lewis Milestone as well as progressive actors and screenwriters with whom he would later associate as an activist — Eddie Albert, John Garfield, Waldo Salt, Melvyn Douglas, Helen Gahagan, and others. Geer also introduced Guthrie to John Steinbeck, who would go on to endorse his work and sometimes accompany him to his performances with Geer at migrant camps and at Hollywood studios and parties.
Shortly after the birth of his third child, Bill, in October 1939 (Bill would be killed at the age of twenty-three, driving his car into a train), Guthrie lost his job at KFVD after a series of confrontations with Burke over the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Soviet invasion of Poland, both of which — in line with the increasingly uncomfortable Communist Party of the USA — Guthrie supported, to Burke's disgust. In an old Plymouth that Guthrie said he had bought "eighth-hand," the family moved back to Pampa, where Guthrie briefly took up his old job at Shorty Harris's drugstore. According to the town librarian, Evelyn Todd, Guthrie boasted that he had secured a role in John Ford's film of The Grapes of Wrath but lost it due to his touring in the migrant camps. (Guthrie would later claim to have acted as a musical consultant to Ford.)
Excerpted from "Woody Guthrie's Modern World Blues"
Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA 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.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. A Modern Life,
2. Woody Guthrie, American Modernist,
3. Ribbon of Highway,
4. Long Steel Rails and Ships in the Sky,
5. Other Wheels A-whirling,
6. Hold the 'Fone — It's Radio Time!,
7. Ingrid Bergman's "Fonograft",
8. Dance around My Atom Fire,
9. The Science of Struggle,
10. A Unity of Disunity,
11. I Say to You Woman and Man,
12. Blacks + Jews = Blues,
13. Urban Centrifuge,
Conclusion: Constant Changer,