Woody Guthrie was a socially conscious hillbilly singer. He was slender, with wild hair and a beard, and had a folksy writing style. Born on July 14, 1912, shortly after Woodrow Wilson got the Democratic nomination for president, Guthrie died in 1967 of Huntington's disease. He was a controversial embarrassment in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, but a national treasure to the millions who listened to the more than 1,200 songs he wrote and performed.
Oklahoma in Guthrie's youth was in the waning years of its prairie radicalism and Christian socialism, but not in the Guthrie household. Guthrie's father, a real estate agent and Okemah city clerk, was a model Democrat, opposed to Eugene Debs and socialism. Woody grew up as a Democrat, working on his father's unsuccessful campaign for corporation commissioner. He moved further left when the Democrats failed to act on race relations and redistribution of income.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Guthrie hoboed to California, where he stayed from 1936 to 1940. From 1940 until his death he lived and worked mostly in the East. He may or may not have joined the California Communist Party, but in 1939 he wrote a column, “Woody Sez,” for the People's Daily World in San Francisco. Despite the portrayal of him in the movie Bound for Glory, Guthrie was more than a populist by 1940.
Guthrie shared the left-wing populism of Oklahoma's Will Rogers as well as Walt Whitman's belief in the common man, and his music and writings incorporate the old populist rejection of concentrated wealth. His belief in democracy's future and the pursuit of happiness was as old as Daniel Shays and Thomas Jefferson. Guthrie's targets included bankers, lawyers, utilities, and gouging businesspeople.
Guthrie's work included “Pastures of Plenty,” “Hard Travelin,” “So Long It's Been Good to Know You,” and other songs of Dust Bowl migrants as well as outlaws such as “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Jesse James. Guthrie portrayed Jesus as a socialist outlaw in “They Laid Poor Jesus Christ in His Grave” and as a working-class carpenter supporting the rights of the common people before being betrayed by the selfish rich. “This Land Is Your Land” answered Irving Berlin's “God Bless America,” which offended Guthrie because it glibly told people not to worry because God was taking care of them.
In Okemah, many in the 1950s and early 1960s regarded Guthrie as a communist. The local American Legion successfully pressured the city to cancel Woody Guthrie Day after his death because of his supposed communism. When his wife and son donated papers and recordings to the library, they did so secretly because the locals feared an influx of “hippies.” An earlier attempt to donate was blocked by the right-wing American Security Council, and Oklahomans refused to accept that a “communist” wrote the state song, “Oklahoma Hills,” preferring to credit his cousin, Jack Guthrie.
John H. Barnhill
See also: Democratic Party ; New Deal ; Pop Culture ; Progressivism ; Rogers, Will (1879–1935) ; Socialism, Christian
Briley, Ron. “‘Woody Sez’: Woody Guthrie, the People's Daily World, and Indigenous Radicalism.” California History 84 (1): 30–43, 69–70.
Collins, Rob. “Portrait of a Populist.” Oklahoma Gazette, June 2, 2004. http://www.woodyguthrie.org/merchandise/oklahomagazette.htm . Accessed January 3, 2013.
Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. “One or Two Things I Know about Us: Rethinking the Image and Role of the ‘Okies.’” Monthly Review 53 (3). http://www.monthlyreview.org/0702dunbar.htm .
Jackson, Mark Allan. “Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie.” PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2002. http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-1112102-151209/unrestricted/Jackson_dis.pdf . Accessed January 3, 2013.