Born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie traveled the United States during the Great Depression and observed the nation’s dire poverty at a point when it seemed that capitalism had failed. As a songwriter, he merged these experiences with country music and the radical politics that he believed would remedy the nation’s suffering, a combination heard in tunes such as “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Do Re Mi,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Singing about social justice and the experiences of common people exploited by the powerful, Guthrie generated an unmatched repertoire of material that has inspired generations of musicians, from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Wilco.
Guthrie’s iconic status in American cultural memory is not due to his music alone, but also to the ways he has come to represent what many people think of as the “folk” in folk music. Indeed, Guthrie’s roots in white, rural America were essential to the very construction of the idea of the “folk” in the twentieth century United States. Bound up in these very specific and sometimes limited understandings of race and class, this construction of who counts as the folk lingers today.
Woody Guthrie’s childhood in Okemah was a traumatic one during which a fire killed his sister, a second fire maimed his father, and his mother was institutionalized. Settling in Pampa, Texas, at the age of seventeen, Guthrie played music, worked as a sign painter, and met and married his first wife, Mary, with whom he had three children. In 1937, he left his young family and the stricken plains behind and headed for Los Angeles, a common destination for the American migrants fleeing the environmental and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl. Unlike most of his fellow migrants, Guthrie eschewed manual labor for the relative ease of the radio studio. On KFVD out of Los Angeles, Guthrie secured both his own show and the admiration of other migrants, who recognized one of their own in his voice, music, and humor.
Working in California, Guthrie also participated in the Popular Front. A coalition of socialists, communists, and organized workers who sometimes aligned themselves with President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal agenda, the Popular Front established a particular artistic vision as well. Relying heavily on the documentary arts exemplified by the photography of Dorthea Lange and other artists employed by the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration, this documentary impulse expressed solidarity with downtrodden American workers who Guthrie championed. By 1938, Guthrie had perfected his signature act, relying on a combination of traditional country music, Will Rogers-inspired humor, and his own topical tunes. He also earned some direct political experience by helping support the Madera County cotton strike and writing a column of downhome philosophy called “Woody Sez” for the People’s World, a leftist newspaper.
With his participation in the March 1940 “Grapes of Wrath” concert in New York City, Guthrie secured his place in what historian Michael Denning has called the “cultural front.” To the concert audience, Guthrie appeared as a Steinbeck character or a Lange image come to life, and in the show’s immediate aftermath, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress. Just two months later, Guthrie recorded for RCA Victor his seminal collection, entitled Dust Bowl Ballads. With his ties to the Popular Front and claim on rural authenticity, Guthrie endeared himself to generations of historians, folklorists, and activists, who often take the leftist folksinger as the embodiment of the nation’s Depression-era experience.
But Guthrie’s entrenchment as the archetypal activist musician has little to do with the actual music consumed by members of the working class during the Depression. His records never sold much in his lifetime, and the proletariat was far more likely to listen to jazz and pop than to winding Dust Bowl reflections. From Fletcher Henderson to Billie Holiday to Lena Horne, it was African American musicians who created an intimate relationship to the Popular Front by raising money and advancing the platform of racial equality, all while producing the most popular music among the urban working class.
We remember Guthrie as we do because the broader cultural understanding of the Dust Bowl enshrined white migrant workers at the core of that experience. As described in books such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the Oklahoma-to-California migration story tugged at the national heartstrings by focusing on the misery of displaced white Americans like the fictional Joad family while erasing the stories of the Mexican and Filipino laborers deported to make room for those white Dust Bowl refugees.
In the 1940s, Guthrie moved to New York City, joined the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, served as a Merchant Marine during World War II, and married dancer Marjorie Mazia, with whom he had three more children. Plagued by redbaiting, a faltering career, and failing health, Guthrie entered permanent hospital care in 1956. He stayed there until his death from Huntington’s disease in 1967.
But the midcentury folk revival, largely made up of young white suburbanites, found readymade heroes in Guthrie and his many imitators. This was a new fan base, but it latched on to Guthrie once again as the quintessential image and sound of musical activism. Picture any lone singer with a guitar and a harmonica rack sounding out earnest tunes, from Dylan to the latest hobo-chic acoustic songwriter. Trace that singer’s performative genealogy back far enough, and the chances are pretty good that Woody Guthrie is the tap root of the family tree.
Analyzing this fact should not diminish our rightful admiration for Guthrie who, on the 104th anniversary of his birth, remains essential to American musical history. He was more than just a voice of Popular Front agitprop. He was an artist who took elements of working-class culture and assembled them into poetic, political expressions that transcended rudimentary definitions of the “folk.” When we think about that kind of political potential, we should recognize the diversity of musical activism, whether it is Fletcher Henderson, Kendrick Lamar, Loretta Lynn, Billie Holiday, or Selena. It does not require a battered guitar and a harmonica to form a political coalition. It takes a message and a sound that animates and captivates listeners. Woody Guthrie had both.