Going Down That Lonesome Road, Bound For Glory With Woody Guthrie

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Born at Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), who during his life of almost constant struggle and hardship, composed more than 1,000 songs, most of which detailed"the plight of the oppressed, dispossessed, poverty- and starvation-ridden, homeless, jobless, nameless, victimized and otherwise disenfranchised American common man," suffered from Huntington's Chorea. After a long confinement in a New Jersey sanatorium, he eventually died at Creedmore Hospital (the Queens, New York). Dead in body then he is; but, don't anyone doubt, he will live on in spirit through the legacy of his moving, many times, caustic comments in songs regarding American society and its economic system.


On the back cover of a record album (which I bought many years ago in a Cincinnati, Ohio, store), issued by the Radio Corporation of America (1964), with the title Dust Bowl Ballads, including 14 songs, there appears a passage from the commentary, from which I want to quote (as from another part, given in the opening paragraph):"The phenomenon of Woody Guthrie? He was a force--a potent, unswerving force for right, for social equality, justice, opportunity for all, a man who firmly believed that truth could free the world." In delivering his version of the truth, however, Guthrie paid a heavy price. For, as he said himself (and once again borrowing from the record album, mentioned above), it had been his great misfortune, which he expressed though without rancor:"to [often] choose between what I thought was the truth, and a good paycheck, and that's why I go around so truthfully broke, I reckon."

Without doubt the harshest period of Guthrie's life before World War II came in the 1930s. For, in 1931 the rains slackened considerably in the southern Great Plains. That phenomenon continued for about a decade, the rainfall averaging between 11 and 12 inches per year, down from the normal 18 inches a year. So, after the crops died, the parched soil (denuded by plowing) blew away by the ton, all of which brought on the Dust Bowls, resulting necessarily in the devastation of people's lives in the region.


Guthrie, who was living in Oklahoma at the time, tells the story in"The Great Dust Storm." It conveys, perhaps better than any other eye-witness account, the frightening nature of that and other such storms. The date, as Guthrie gives it, was the 14 April 1935, and as he added, the sky became a"death-like black." In fact, as with other such storms, it became dark as night at noonday! Besides, the millions upon millions of tons of dust, blown from the barren soil, were wafted, as with many other of those storms, as far as the Atlantic coast and beyond, where a fine silt settled on the decks of ships.

As already suggested, Guthrie gave voices to the suffering poor, often the homeless, including the"Okies" of Oklahoma, who (like himself) became refugees. Displaced, their farms often foreclosed, the"Okies," along with many other people in the southern plains, sought out a new life (and hopefully good jobs) in the orchards of California.

Guthrie recorded in songs, often with more than a tinge of sarcasm, the plight of those thousands upon thousands of displaced persons, as they were to learn the hard way, were not welcomed on the west coast. Let but two examples from Woody's songs suffice to indicate how well he used his lyrics to make telling social commentaries. In"Pretty Boy Floyd," Guthrie observed with humor, but also in protest:"Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen." For the other example, listen sometime (and learn as well) from"Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues," wherein Guthrie narrates his 1937 exodus, along with his wife and children, in their"Ford machine" to California. There, in a"jungle camp" (and there were many in the 1930s), he tells of gathering up"a spud or two," from which his wife made a soup. They"poured the kids full of it." But, Guthrie ended the song with a message, he wanted to deliver:"Mighty thin stew though; you could read a magazine right through it. Always have figured, that if it had been just a little bit thinner, some of these here politicians could have seen through it."


Let me provide at this point a"slice of life" from the present, which, can be used, however, to hark back to the Great Depression, while at the same time, it offers a poignant look at the plight of many Americans yet today. The Holmesburg Methodist Church in northeast Philadelphia prepared a Thanksgiving dinner this past November. I partook of it; then received a sack of groceries (mainly canned goods) to take home. I had no reservations about eating the repast or taking home the food, for I have had no employment of any kind myself for two years. But, while at the church, I soon discovered many there, eating the tasty meal with me, were much worse off than myself. For, my mother and I share an apartment four or five miles from that church; and, she does have a small pension and good social security. Then too, occasionally my sister and her husband forward money to me from California, much of which I put to good use, defraying the costs of research and writing.

But, as I was about to relate, I found out that several (at least) of those people dining with me had no home at all (and, no doubt as well, very little, if any money). They were sleeping in the nearby parks, behind apartment buildings, or perhaps in motor vehicles. Really though the condition of those people did not surprise me, because on many visits to the Free Library downtown (the main facility), or to the fine repository of the American Philosophical Society near Independence Hall, I often see homeless people on the sidewalks, where they beg for what money passersby might offer (and, sometimes, when I had a little extra change, I would part with it).

The reference to Independence Hall, reminds me of the oft-quoted words of Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence, written roughly 225 years ago:"all men [and women too] are created equal." When, may I ask, are we going to live up to that ideal in economic terms? Consider here in the glaring light of that question, the untold numbers of people who struggled through the 1930s, as depicted so well by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a book soon to become a motion picture under the same title, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford in 1940.

Not without cause, Guthrie composed a two-part ballad about that film, which he headed"Tom Joad" (after the main character, played in Oscar-winning fashion by Henry Fonda). Woody said himself, that having seen the film, he wanted to describe the movie, for those people (down and out, like himself), who would never have the price of admission.

By way of a conclusion, allow me to offer a question first, then a salutation from Woody Guthrie himself. Could anyone (sane, of course) explain to my satisfaction (which is doubtful), why this nation, the richest that has ever been on earth (surely I need not supply the proof statistically), still has many people, such as those in Philadelphia, roaming the streets, where they so often sleep at night on park benches with a blanket or two (even in winter) with no place else to lay their heads? Now for the salute, which comes from Guthrie's"Dusty Old Dust:""So long it's been good to know yuh." The 14 songs on that record album (with commentary by Peter J. Welding, a noted folklorist) were all recorded 26 April 1940. A recently issued compact disc (CD), also titled Dust Bowl Ballads (New York: Buddha Records, 2000) would no doubt be easier to come by than the record album. The student, or other interested person for that matter, ought to make use of Barbara L. Tischler's"Woody Guthrie," in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 24 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 9:745-47. Finally, for anyone wanting a much fuller treatment of Guthrie's life and times, contact The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, New York, New York, either by mail or more quickly through web site address (www.woodyguthrie.org).

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Laura Keal - 2/7/2002

Fans of Woody Guthrie may also be interested in a couple discs made by Billy Bragg and Wilco entitled Mermaid Avenue. They took Woody's unpublished music, and, under the supervision of Nora Guthrie, his daughter, recorded some music. These recordings are bringing Woody's idea to a younger audience and are well worth checking out.

Paul Siff - 2/7/2002

Yes, Woody was phenomenal; he possessed an unerring ability to sniff out and expose hypocrisy. Joe Klein's biography is also a good source Guthrie's life. His relevance to the present day goes beyond the plight of the homeless. In light on the Enron scandal (and before it, the S&L scandal of the 1980s), ponder his lines from "Pretty Boy Floyd":

"I've travelled 'round this country; I've met lots of funny men
Some'll rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen"