The Chronicle Review

Woody Guthrie at 100

The folk icon remains elusive and understudied

Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

Woody Guthrie in 1950. Most of his songs didn't gain prominence until much later.
October 08, 2012
Reinventing Ourselves

Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

Woody Guthrie in 1950. Most of his songs didn’t gain prominence until much later.

Woody Guthrie has been having a blowout of a 100th birthday party, and it's lasted all year long. Forty-five years after his death in 1967, you can suddenly hear him everywhere.

Tribute concerts have been held around America and in Europe, many with conferences attached, and the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his Oklahoma hometown this summer swelled to extra-large proportions for the centennial. Smithsonian Folkways has released a lavishly documented box set, Woody at 100, that couples well-known compositions with rare and unreleased performances. On October 14th, all will culminate in a Kennedy Center Celebration Concert with an honor roll of musicians.

A handful of fine books have also been timed to appear this year—including a "song biography," This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, and a biography cum memoir, Woody's Road, by Guthrie's younger sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, and the Oklahoma historian and folklorist Guy Logsdon. Guthrie's archives, long housed in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., are being shifted amid great fanfare to Tulsa, Okla. There was even an announcement by the historian and television personality Douglas Brinkley and the polymathic performer Johnny Depp of a deal to publish the recently located manuscript of Guthrie's previously unknown 1947 Dust Bowl novel, House of Earth.

But after the confetti flutters to the ground and the crowd disperses, exactly what will remain?

The instability of Guthrie's renown owes something to his leftist politics, but that's only part of the story. Some of it surely has to do with how he lived his life. He was a nonstop creator, but never an entrepreneur. As a result, lots of his work went unnoticed until he was "rediscovered" after he stopped performing—and despite recent excavations, there's still a rich trove in the archive, including thousands of song lyrics that he never recorded. Nor should we overlook the nature of Guthrie's art itself: The accessibility of his writing masks its depth.

But it still remains to explain why it has taken so long for Guthrie to get his due—not least from scholars. The man was quite simply a titan in his field. In less than two decades of public life, Guthrie created a vast body of work that continues to influence artists and listeners. His subject matter—immigration, unemployment, bank foreclosures, climate disasters—could not be more topical. Almost every American knows at least a song or two by Woody Guthrie, so why don't they know more about the songwriter?

The disjointed nature of Guthrie's artistic life, in which fame followed him like a long-delayed echo, is the first place to search for answers.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in the small town of Okemah, Okla., a few months before his namesake was elected president in 1912. Guthrie's family never knew stability. His father's work waned more often than it waxed, and Guthrie's mother, Nora, showed signs early in her son's life of the Huntington's disease that eventually killed her—and later him.

The Guthries were plagued by fire. Woody's beloved older sister, Clara, died in 1919 of burns suffered in a kitchen accident, and the family home burned down in 1927 as a result of a fire that Nora Guthrie may have started. She was eventually institutionalized. Guthrie's father, Charley Edward, permanently disabled by burns, moved to the farming town of Pampa, Tex.

Guthrie later joined his father in Texas, and there he found his musical vocation. He learned the guitar and started to perform. He also married for the first time at age 21, and quickly became a father himself. But beginning a lifelong pattern of restlessness, he soon drifted to Los Angeles, alone.

Guthrie's stay in Depression-era Southern California politicized him. New Deal reforms were slow to reach the coast, as powerful agribusiness interests fought hard for control of a poor and itinerant labor supply. That labor force included the "Okies" who had fled the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl in search of any sort of work. Appalled by the inequality he saw, Guthrie began to write songs about it:


   California is a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or to see,
   But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
   If you ain't got the do-re-mi.

He became a popular Los Angeles radio host in the late 1930s, and honed a persona that was part Okie, part homespun storyteller, and part singing activist. But Guthrie soon abandoned his radio gig and moved on—first back to Texas in a failed attempt at family life, and then to New York City in 1940, the year he wrote "This Land Is Your Land." In New York, Guthrie found a welcome among the city's left-wing intelligentsia and began to make a living performing at rallies, union halls, and other political gatherings.

He cut a record, Dust Bowl Ballads, for RCA in 1940. It turned out to be the only record he would make for a major label, and it was modestly received. He also recorded at the Library of Congress at the invitation of the folk archivist Alan Lomax that year, though those recordings weren't released until 1964.

Even in such congenial artistic surroundings, Guthrie could not stay put for long. He bounced back and forth from coast to coast in the early 1940s, sometimes with his new friend Pete Seeger, a Harvard dropout who sensed the genius of this guitar-wielding knight errant who was writing and singing on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised, the workers: people who needed a voice.

Guthrie—and also Seeger—was a Communist sympathizer at this time, but Guthrie probably didn't join the party. When asked about his politics, he had a one-liner at the ready: "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life." You could say he was never an official joiner—or perhaps that he could never belong to a group that would exclude anyone. In response to a question about his religion toward the end of his life, he quipped: "All or none."

Guthrie was turning out words at an astonishing rate during these years. "You rarely see a cross-out," Barry Ollman, owner of the largest collection of Guthrie's writings outside of the singer's official archive, told me at this past summer's WoodyFest in Okemah. "He knew what he wanted to say." In the spring of 1941, for example, Guthrie took a 30-day songwriting job with the Bonneville Power Administration, a New Deal project in the Pacific Northwest. His assignment was to write songs about the dams that were being built along the Columbia River. He wrote 26 songs that month, including "Roll on, Columbia," now the official state folk song of Washington.

Reinventing Ourselves

Courtesy of The Woody Guthrie Archives

The original handwritten song lyric for "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrieis dated February 23, 1940.

None of those songs gained any sort of wide acclaim at the time. "This Land Is Your Land," for example, has had a career arc as eccentric as its author's. Guthrie didn't record his lyrics to the song until 1944, four years after he wrote them, and probably sang it on the radio for the first time in 1945, the same year that the words were first published. His recording wasn't released until 1952, when it appeared on a children's record and was barely noticed. Not until the late 1950s did the song gain prominence.

Guthrie paid little attention to the financial workings of the music business. He acted not so much out of principle—he was glad to make money—but because he was perpetually on the move, creatively as well as personally. In that respect, he was a true folksinger, happy to just share his songs with folks. In a 1999 essay, Seeger recalled that his friend's view of copyright was not exactly exclusive, and ran something like this: "Anyone caught singing one of these songs ... will be a good friend of mine, because that's why I wrote 'em."

The 1940s were the most stable period in Guthrie's life, and his most creative. His autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, was published in 1943 to wide notice. Not only was he celebrated as the newest man of letters of the Popular Front, a loose collection of leftist groups, but he was also lauded by mainstream critics. The book received about 150 reviews; The New York Times described him as "a poet" who was "on fire inside." Guthrie recorded scores of songs for Moses Asch's small, privately owned label during the 40s, but Asch released very few at the time, and they had no commercial impact. Most of the recordings did not appear until the early 1960s—but they eventually became a cornerstone of Guthrie's legacy.

Outside of a stint in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Guthrie remained based in New York City for the rest of the decade, now with his second wife, Marjorie, and a second set of children. That second family included his son Arlo, who would become a famous musician in his own right, and daughter Nora, her father's future archivist.

By the early 1950s Guthrie was displaying the erratic behavior that eventually led to his own diagnosis with Huntington's disease in 1952. Acquired from his mother (and passed on to two of his eight children), Huntington's usually presents in midlife. Like Lou Gehrig's disease, it is incurable. Unlike Gehrig's disease, which leaves the mind intact as it destroys the body, Huntington's destroys brain cells and causes cognitive changes (which led to a misdiagnosis of insanity for Guthrie's mother), even as it erodes muscle control. It's a long, bad death.

Reinventing Ourselves

Courtesy of The Woody Guthrie Archives

Woody Guthrie (left) and Pete Seeger (with banjo) founded the Almanac Singers in 1941. The group was active until about 1943.

Always impulsive, Guthrie became mercurial and quarrelsome. He divorced again, returned to California, remarried. He repaired to New York after his third marriage ended and was taken in and cared for by Marjorie for the rest of his life. Intermittently, and then continuously, confined, he lingered at various hospitals for more than a decade before he died. In the process, he became, in the words of his biographer Ed Cray, "a vague, almost legendary figure."

He had always been well known among folk musicians, with Pete Seeger in the lead. As a member of The Weavers, Seeger helped make Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" into a hit, and his thousands of performances of "This Land Is Your Land" did much to fix the song in national and international memory.

The publisher Howard (Howie) S. Richmond also did unsung but crucial work to keep Guthrie's music in public view during the 1950s. At a time when Seeger and other performers were being blacklisted for their Communist associations, Richmond touted Guthrie's songs when Guthrie no longer could. Richmond sold many to publishers of songbooks, especially those assembled for children—thus allowing Guthrie's words to elude the blacklist. "This Land Is Your Land" Richmond gave away free.

A New York concert in 1956, organized as a benefit for Guthrie's family, first brought the singer out of the shadows to stand alongside his songs. The show put wind in the sails of the folk revival, and Guthrie became a hero to a new generation of folkies that included Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and most famously, Bob Dylan. Ochs and Dylan wrote memorable songs about their idol ("Bound for Glory" and "Song to Woody"). Guthrie's recordings from the 1940s now began to appear, with extensive liner notes. So did tribute collections of others singing his songs.

He was incredibly well read. He ate books for lunch, just took in everything that was around him, from American history to biology.

Performing at this year's WoodyFest, the singer-songwriter Larry Long described Guthrie's life as a "creative explosion that subdivided into thousands of subatomic particles that turned into little Woodys." The efforts of those "little Woodys"—or Woody's children, as they're more often described—enabled Woody Guthrie to finally take his public place in the music he had helped to grow.

But Guthrie also remained a divisive figure. David Amram, who has written a suite of "Symphonic Variations of a Song by Woody Guthrie," suggested that Guthrie "was marginalized by people who wanted to put a political slant on him." He became a lightening rod for true believers right and left. "He was either a hero against the enemy, or he was the enemy," said Amram. "That's understandable in a boxing match, but not for a poet. Great artists are on everybody's side."

Nevertheless, Guthrie's personal politics made him an easy adversary. The American Legion blocked an attempt to honor him in his hometown in 1967 on the grounds that he was a Communist. Guy Logsdon recalled at the folkfest that, in 1982, Gov. George Nigh of Oklahoma forbade the mention of Guthrie's name at the celebration of Oklahoma at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. (Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and others helped organize an alternative "Tribute to Woody Guthrie." Thousands attended.)

Guthrie has also received surprisingly little scholarly attention. There have been two good biographies—Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie, in 1980, and Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man, 2004. (There's also a new short biography, Woody Guthrie: Writing America's Songs, by Ronald Cohen, an emeritus professor at Indiana University Northwest. And last year brought us the U.K.-based literary critic Will Kaufman's Woody Guthrie, American Radical.) But given Guthrie's immense stature and influence, there is much less scholarship on his work than one might expect. His radical politics would presumably not discourage academics, many of whom lean left themselves. Why the diffidence?

To begin with, Guthrie did his own part to discourage scholarly treatment. He affected a down-home, "aw, shucks" Okie persona adapted from the manner of Will Rogers, who was immensely popular when the folksinger was growing up. But the image can "defeat the interest that writers might have in him" today, the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz told me in a recent interview.

In fact, Guthrie's self-presentation disguised considerable learning. "He was incredibly well read," Santelli said to me. "He ate books for lunch, just took in everything that was around him, from American history to biology." The Smithsonian's Folkways archive contains Guthrie's heavily annotated copy of the Federalist Papers. "He's arguing with the founders" all across the margins, Jeff Place, the head of the archive, told me.

Guthrie also wrote more than songs. Logsdon estimates that in addition to more than 3,000 poems and songs, Guthrie wrote dozens of essays, "at least three" novels, and thousands of letters. There are also more than 500 illustrations, some photography, and even a few oil paintings. "How many people," asked Logsdon admiringly this summer, "can illustrate their own writings?"

The Okie image, though crafted from reality, was really a conscious work of performance art. Guthrie described himself on his L.A.-radio business card as "Th' Dustiest of Th' Dustbowlers," an image that eased his entry into left-wing New York political society at the time when he was ready to assert himself as an artist. The intellectuals there welcomed him, said Santelli, as the "poet of the people."

But the "real" Woody Guthrie is hard to see. Bruce Springsteen has spoken of the power of "Woody's gaze"—but it's usually turned outward. While Nora Guthrie, speaking at a recent Guthrie conference at Brooklyn College, compared her father's songs to diaries, the music critic Dave Marsh told me afterward that Guthrie had more of a painter's perspective. An artist draws your attention to some things and away from others.

"All you can write is what you see," wrote Guthrie at the bottom of his handwritten lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land." And he saw plenty. The itinerant folksinger spent much of his life traversing the country, meeting countless other people, and his experience of them gives his art a matchlessly expansive view of the national panorama.

That ceaseless interest in others, coupled with a self-presentation that was only partly real, deflects the viewer from Guthrie himself. "The worst thing that can happen is to cut yourself loose from the people," Guthrie wrote in one of his notebooks, "And the best thing is to sort of vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people." But when you inject yourself into the bloodstream, you also become indistinguishable within it.

Reflecting on that before his own set at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the California singer-songwriter Joel Rafael remarked, "There's an element of Woody that was detached from those around him." When I visited Seeger in Beacon, N.Y., to talk about Guthrie, he suggested that his friend "had to keep his independence." Perhaps "independence" and detachment were intertwined for Guthrie. Bound for Glory may be the world's least revealing autobiography, which could explain why it's fictionalized.

Reinventing Ourselves

Woody Guthrie's guitar

Guthrie's sister Mary Jo offers a clue to psychobiographers in Woody's Road. "Don't you never cry," she reports that their older sister, Clara, told Woody as she lay dying from her burns. He was not quite 7 years old. When Guthrie's own daughter Cathy, the inspiration for many of his best-loved songs for children, died at age 4 from burns she suffered in a 1947 electrical fire, Mary Jo detected in her brother's relentlessly upbeat letters ("We are holding up in fine shape") his older sister's injunction.

Nor did Guthrie discuss his creative process. Seeger described to me how he once told his friend that "people like me envy you your ability to write verses wherever you are, whenever you are, however you are." But Guthrie didn't talk about it; he just did it. Said Seeger: "I just watched it."

That leaves us with Guthrie's work, which is much less obvious than it appears. Guthrie's songs, writes Seeger in his new book, Pete Seeger: His Life in His Own Words, "show the genius of simplicity." Such genius can be easily misunderstood. "People mistake Woody Guthrie as simpler than he is," said Sean Wilentz. "With Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, it's a puzzle. These guys are obviously difficult. And academics are attracted to the difficult."

David Shumway, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and a scholar of popular music, noted in an e-mail that "white working-class artists have no dedicated constituency in the academy." Even so, Shumway found it surprising that "almost no one has thought it necessary to offer readings of Guthrie's activist songs." Critics are taught that "didactic art is bad, even though didactic criticism is fine."

"Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity," Seeger has memorably said of Guthrie. But Guthrie is remembered, Wilentz pointed out, "by too many people as a naïf, as a simple singer of ballads and teller of stories."

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most read and perhaps the most influential novel in American history, was ignored by generations of critics for much the same reason. Now scholars attend to Stowe's artistry because "how it works" can be as complicated and important as "what it says"—and because those two inquiries illuminate each other.

With that in mind, consider the tension between the general and the particular in Guthrie's work. An early version of his "Oklahoma Hills" (written in the 1930s, now the official folk song of Oklahoma) unfurled the names of all of the American Indian tribes in the state, but later versions excised the list.

"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" was inspired by the crash of a plane full of illegal immigrants being returned to Mexico in 1948. "He was outraged," Seeger told me. If white people had died, the newspapers would have listed their names. "That's the main point of the song." Guthrie's elegiac refrain evokes those names but also effaces them:

   Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
   Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
   You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
   All they will call you will be "deportees"

Like Walt Whitman, to whom he has been compared by many (including himself), Woody Guthrie is drawn to the roster for aesthetic reasons—even when that roster doesn't appear in the finished song.

The philosopher Adam Smith writes that sympathy depends on proximity. For Guthrie, the particular creates an intimate proximity that enables sympathy. Much of Guthrie's creativity sprang from an effort to learn the particulars and translate them to wider audiences. "Woody believed that no man should be anonymous," Dave Marsh has written. Seeger goes further: "He felt that every human being was important." Guthrie's rhetoric of protest is therefore part of a larger one of intimacy. Of course, that observation only skims the surface of his work's complexity, and how his politics may be implicated with his music. Much more remains to be done, especially with the trove of Guthrie's released and unreleased words, lyrics, and art.

The curators of Woody Guthrie's extant recordings now treat his work as important American art, as the new Smithsonian boxed set amply shows. But curation has its limits. The English musician-activist Billy Bragg told me at the Okemah conference that "we've not yet heard what Woody had to tell America and the world."

Santelli concurred. As director of the Grammy Museum, he has done more than anyone to set up the series of conferences and concerts that have dotted the national landscape this year. "My goal," he said, "is to set Woody Guthrie up for the next hundred years." So far, the results have disappointed him. "There have got to be younger academics, kids in college, who can continue this," he said. But he has seen little interest in Woody Guthrie among members of the next generation.

Not that it's always easy to embrace Guthrie. Joel Rafael, who has released two fine albums of Guthrie songs, observed, "There's an element to Woody that takes study. You have to apply yourself." Rafael describes Guthrie as a "Zen hobo." But hobos are complex figures in the American tradition. On the one hand, a hobo is a rebel who lives a life of adventure. On the other, a hobo is a bum, even if he's sometimes, as a well-known Guthrie refrain goes, a "great historical bum."

Indeed, while it's easy to romanticize Guthrie's ceaseless movement, that particular romance tends to appeal most strongly to men. "He was terrible to women," Elizabeth Partridge, another Guthrie biographer, told me bluntly. Especially to those close to him. Guthrie would say, "I've got to go recharge my batteries," Seeger told me. "He used that phrase more than once." Then he'd go hitchhiking, maybe to "reconnect with regular working people who had to make enough money to live—not left-wingers, not progressives." After awhile, he'd turn up again. Seeger, who has remained married to the same woman for nearly 70 years, has long wondered if Guthrie's life of creative "scatteration" was "the price of genius."

Guthrie wrote and sang at a time when music was part of the political ferment. Wilentz described his career as "a political venture," not a commercial one. But today music no longer serves as a vehicle for social change as it once did. "People play folk instruments," the Boston folk musician Ellis Paul told me, "but I'm not hearing the social commentary."

Springsteen is an exception. However, Santelli worries that Springsteen's well-known identification with Guthrie may be a two-edged sword: "Springsteen is so connected to Woody Guthrie in the pop world that people won't go there," he said this summer. Even if they do, Guthrie himself may get lost. Wilentz described Springsteen's recent album of songs about the Great Recession, Wrecking Ball, as "essentially a Woody Guthrie album." He thinks that's the form Guthrie's legacy will take: It will go forward through other people.

Others are more optimistic about Guthrie's own place: "Now is the time for Woody Guthrie," said Amram, the composer. While once Americans shunned their own artistic roots, now they celebrate them. And venues like YouTube offer "a license to search for buried treasure."

In Guthrie's case, the idea of buried treasure carries special meaning because of his vast and mostly untapped archive. Billy Bragg in particular, one of the first artists to delve into that archive, stresses its future value. "The scholars don't notice Woody Guthrie," Bragg said in Oklahoma, because they "are only working on the records Woody made between 1935 and 1945." The archive contains a Guthrie who is "very different from the one that people try to put on a pedestal." This Guthrie, has "many more facets than a Dust Bowl balladeer," said Bragg. "There's a Woody Guthrie for everyone—for the patriot, the dog lover, the punk fan."

Even when institutionalized and slowly losing control over himself, with a burn-damaged arm with which he could no longer play the guitar (another loss by fire), Guthrie wrote hundreds of lyrics to melodies he heard only in his head, on subjects as disparate as sex and flying saucers. "He turned everything into a song," his daughter Nora, the head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and director of the archive, told me. "I heard the songs in my head and was surprised by the content of the lyrics."

The family saved all those words. For some years now, Nora Guthrie has invited other artists to write music for them and record the songs. Somehow, Woody Guthrie seems to land on his feet.

Maybe that's because so many other people have helped break his fall. Most of his admirers learned his songs from others. My mother learned them at Pete Seeger concerts while she was a college student. I learned them from her when I was a child, and my daughter has learned them from me. They're good songs, and, as Seeger observed, they grow on you "until they become part of your life."

Viewing Guthrie's compressed epic of a life can be disorienting, like watching a movie whose soundtrack trails the picture. He produced the bulk of his creative output in a blistering decade and a half ending in the early 50s, but his public reception didn't gain momentum until he was already in decline. "Woody was born out of time," said Bragg. "Had he been born 20 years later, he would have been recognized as a classic singer-songwriter. He was an alternative artist before the idea was even invented."

Woody Guthrie wrote a soundtrack of America as seen from below. One gets the feeling that he somehow knew he had half the usual time, yet wanted to live twice as much. So he spun off words like a sparkler that seemed that it could never burn out. "Why do we continue to talk about Woody so many years on?" Bruce Springsteen asked recently. "Never had a hit, never went platinum, never played in an arena, never got his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone." Springsteen's answer: Guthrie is a "big, big ghost in the machine."

In 2009, Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang "This Land Is Your Land" in front of the Lincoln Memorial, joined by more than 100,000 people and viewed by millions around the world, before President Obama's inauguration. The event marked Guthrie's increased visibility, and something more. It was a celebration, Springsteen later said, of the "sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy."

Correction (10/9/12, 11:45 a.m.): The original version of this article misstated the year Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang "This Land Is Your Land" at the Lincoln Memorial. It was in 2009, not 2008. The text has been corrected.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, is general editor of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011).