Part of what it means to be an American Hero, is to be a national hero. Therefore, one of the primary questions of this project is how many people really do carry around a concept of Woody Guthrie, mythologized or not, in their thought. As early as 1939, Woody was making regular radio appearances on a major Los Angeles station, on the Woody and Left Lou show, the first of many shows to come. He performed at countless union meetings, labor strikes, and hobo camp-fires throughout the country. Yet, he's hardly a national icon.
It seems, rather, that Woody was an important figure and symbol in the fairly insulated world of folk music centered in Greenwhich Village. In some ways, being a Folk Hero of this community is antithetical to being an American Hero. This community embraced the image of "the folk" as something outside of the mainstream, and made their music a political tool of advocacy for these people. They also sought to be one of the folk, evinced in the reverence for and mimicry of Woody. Yet, as long as "the folk" were the disenfranchised, and the folk musician's mission was to fight the mainstream Capitalist society that rejected "the folk" and folk music alike, being a popular or financial success as a musician was contraindicated. Nevertheless, Alan Lomax and others drempt of a national folk revival. Making folk music popular was key to not only the financial security of the musicians, but to the goal of making their voices heard in advocacy of the "common man". Furthermore, the community itself hardly fit these theoretical strictures. Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger were both city boys, though their politics were right. Even Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl Refugee and Folk Hero, was on numerous radio shows and adapted "So Long" for a tobacco commercial. The folk community essentially put themselves in a bind by rejecting, to some extent, and embracing the rejection of, the mainstream popular culture.
If anything, it is not Woody, but his song, "This Land Is Your Land" that is nationally known. To many, Woody is the guy who wrote this famous song celebrating America. As such, he is an American Hero to most, expressing the ideals of hope and freedom, celebrating America as nation and landscape, in poetic song.
However, most do not know the real import of the song. In a recent interview, musician, Steve Earle, remarked: "My generation grew up, everybody sang `This Land Is Your Land,' it's just some of us knew what it was about and others didn't. I happened to grow up knowing what it was about. But all the other kids I grew up with sang it in school the way Ronald Reagan quoted `Born in the USA.'" 1 In 1966, Woody was awarded the United States Department of Interior's Conservation Service Award "in recognition of his life-long efforts to make the American people `aware of their heritage and the land,'". 2 While this and other songs may do just that, they also decry the ills of a Capitalistic society that treated "the people", be they migrants, farm laborers, or Mexican immigrants, unjustly. The granting of the Conservation Award, and even the popularity of "This Land Is Your Land" is testament to Woody's songwriting genius, but they are also symptomatic of a gross over-simplification of the meaning and significance of his work.
The anthem of unity and beauty which so many children learned in school was actually written in response to the equally reverenced "God Bless America". As mentioned in the biography, Woody was infuriated with the lack of realism and the message of complacency in this song which infiltrated the nation's air waves. In response, he wrote "God Blessed America For Me" which later became "This Land Is Your Land".
Of the original, at least two stanzas are left out of the song as it is now sung. They are essentially Marxist and turn the celebratory anthem into an ironic attack on mainstream American Capitalist society. In the fourth stanza, the high wall and private property sign keep people out of a part of their country which is supposed to belong to all. This symbolizes the injustices of capitalism. In the sixth stanza, the line at the Relief Office symbolizes the inefficiency of capitalism in its failure to support the people in the most fundamental way. That the line is in the shadow of the steeple on a bright sunny morning suggests, perhaps, that the church is also a failed and unjust institution. Or, perhaps the church's presence next to the Relief Office is meant to emphasize the failure of the New Deal government , in contrast to the tradition of church, religion, and morality. The size, diversity, and beauty of the nation's landscape become tragic and ironic along side the accounts of poverty, homelessness, and the cruelty and failures of capitalism. Ultimately, the value and virtue of the nation, symbolized by its geography, the value and virtue of Americans, of the government, and of God himself are called into question as the persona of the song asks, as though implying a negative response, if God really had blessed America for him.
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property.
But on the back side it didn't say nothing--
God blessed America for me.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people--
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.
It is possible to read the fourth and sixth stanzas as condemning injustice and inefficiency in general, and bemoaning poverty and hard times in general, without blaming them on Capitalism. Just as Woody's beliefs about what is good and just transcend the Communist ideology or party, so we might say that his concept of injustice transcended any ideology such as Capitalism. Nevertheless, a consideration of the historical and biographical background of this song adds an essential layer of meaning. "This Land Is Your Land" was also, undoubtedly, written in response to Woody's experience of being kept out of Los Angeles along with other migrants in 1936. As such, it is specifically about a certain moment in American history whose events brought issues of justice and injustice, and therefore the concept of what America itself should be, to the forefront.
One Guthrie scholar has stated:
"Whether it ["This Land Is Your Land"] was originally a left-wing protest song remains completely irrelevant to its present interpretation and use. Instead of protesting, it celebrates; instead of looking askance at our country and system, it has entered the realm of America and belongs, just like the land, to you, me, and all of us. If Woody intended the song to imply that the land should be shared equally on a communal basis, that implication is lost today and we would be hard pressed to pursue such an interpretation." 3
While the desire to preserve the celebratory aspects of the song is understandable, it need not be at the expense of a fuller understanding of the song. That the Marxist implication of the song is lost today seems not irrelevant, but problematic. It is symptomatic of a lack of understanding and even awareness of folk music and its historical, shaping influences and origins in the 30's and 40's, in American Communism, and folklore. It reflects a naivete about songs and how they come to be, perhaps a myth about songs and songwriting. More disturbingly, this reflects a historical blindness to the culture of the 30's and 40's and to American Communism specifically. Given that most people don't even know who wrote "This Land Is Your Land", the misunderstanding of the song is not so much a misunderstanding of Woody Guthrie or even the folk music tradition and community, but also, and even more, a misunderstanding of the 30's, the experiences and lessons of the era and the music and ideas that came out of it. It is a misunderstanding and abuse of the history of the country the song is supposed to celebrate. Even without the stanzas that came to be left out, the sentiment that "This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land" is obviously Marxist when put into the context of the 30's in which it was written with its labor strikes, unions, migrant workers, and general poverty.
While much of Woody's popularity as an American Hero is based on a misunderstanding or over-simplification of his life and work, there are other ways in which he has earned the title. In addition to the American Hero with a fixed, idealized meaning, is the more complex and dynamic American Hero. As shown in the preceding section, Woody Guthrie, as man and myth(s), played a central role in efforts to define things such as "the people" and "the folk", "integrity", and "authenticity", which are part of the larger effort to define the American identity. He also played a part in regional and national efforts growing out of the 30's, to reshape the nation conceptually and politically. Furthermore, his songs are about important and specific events in the nation's history such as the Dust Bowl in his Dust Bowl Ballads, the sinking of a ship in "Sinking of the Reuben James", and the plane crash of "Los Gatos". In this way, Woody was nothing less than a chronicler of American history.
Finally, Woody as the American Hero is an interesting myth in that it resonates with people beyond the folk community with their anthropological interests in "the folk" and the Dust Bowl. Why did kids make pilgrimages to Woody's apartment in New York? What was it about Woody that so enthralled Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Marjorie Mazia, and Bob Dylan? What is it in Woody's life and songs that we respond to even today, that tell us he represents some of the best of what we consider "American"? Part of the answer is assuredly his personal charm and humor. Both come across in his songs, interviews, drawings and writings, yet it is almost torturous not to have some video of Woody, as oversaturated with it as we are today. Woody also appeals to people because of the ideals he expresses and represents in his life and work.
Woody represents hope and positivity. Woody's statement sited in the preceding section states explicitly that his mission was to fight songs of negativity until his last breath. He fought to the finish this battle in song against injustice and negativity and his battle against Huntington's Disease. This evinces courage and strength as well, especially the strength of one's convictions and ideals. Woody also lived a hard life of tragedy, beginning early in his childhood.
He also represents freedom. Woody became even more popular during the late 50's urban folk revival. At this time, one of his friends and colleagues, Lee Hays asked one of Woody's fans why he was so interested in Woody. The fan replied:"'Most kids reach a point where they really want their freedom. You hate school, your parents--anything that stands in the way. All you can think about is getting out. You want to hitch a ride, hop a freight, go wherever you want. Woody, I guess, represents that kind of freedom for me,'". 4
The mobility of the Dust Bowl Refugee makes Woody a symbol of American freedom. Woody's expression of this freedom was far from simple. It is intertwined with non-conformity and a plain lack of responsibility and respect towards others. Woody lit out again and again, like Huck Finn or as if in fufillment of Manifest Destiny or driven by some intrinsically American lust for wandering. Yet, often Woody left responsibilities behind. The freedom Woody represents is a sort of rebellious freedom that rejects some of the most fundamental notions from what constitutes happiness and success, to hygene.
Perhaps it is the combination of these ideals of hope, positivity, and freedom with the the traits of rebellion and irresponsibility that makes Woody a human and therefore powerful hero, just as the imperfections of his voice humanize and authenticate his songs. In a folk music periodical, Broadside, Camilla Adams, a friend of Woody's and the Almanac Singers, wrote in 1966: "there were very few people who ever got close to Woody and did not suffer from it. And yet he also inspired them...and they loved him inspite of everything." 5 This is a less idealized version of Woody Guthrie the American Hero that actually works in spite of or because of his imperfections in contrast to that version which over-simplifies and misrepresents him.
resources and endnotes