When I started this project, I knew next to nothing about Woody Guthrie. And all I really knew about the project was that it would be about him. I trusted that it would have to shed some light on the era of the 1930s because this decade was the first and shaping part of Woody's adult life and career, and because his experience brought him into contact with some of the most significant features of this era, such as the Dust Bowl migration, early radio, and the labor movements.
What my research impressed upon me was that there was really quite a lot about Woody already out there in books, articles, and web sites, but also that much of it was similar and repetitive, to an extreme. Statements about the import of his career and his impact on music and on America can be identical almost word for word. Other staples of any given book, article, or web-site are John Steinbeck's and Bob Dylan's tributes to Woody. Woody was a font of creativity in prose and letter writing, and painting and drawing as well as in song. Yet, despite the amplitude of this body of work, one comes across the same pieces again and again. And biographies are generally the facts filled out with the same anecdotes. This repetition is the first clue that Woody Guthrie has been mythologized. I should add, however, that recent attention to the Woody Guthrie archive has made for different and generally more comprehensive representations of Woody's life and works. This change in representation is one of the main subjects of this project; it is one of the most interesting aspects of the mythologizing of Woody Guthrie.
By mythologizing, I mean that Woody has come to be connected with certain ideas, images, and words, through repetition, so that these things are as much Woody as Woody himself. In fact, it is impossible to distinguish between Woody the man and Woody the myth, especially for those of us who did not know him personally, but only through others and through his own words, songs, and images which come to us through self-mythologizing or the mythologizing of others. "The point is that the hero is not the individual behind the image. He or she is a collective idealization that is associated with that individual." 1
By using the word "myth", I don't mean to suggest that the images we have of Woody are unreal or entirely untrue (on the contrary, they may have much truth to them), but, rather, to draw attention to the fact that they were and are created, in thought and in artifact, by certain people, places, and events, and that they served certain purposes for the groups and people that created them, as they do for the nation that maintains and reworks them. The myths of Woody Guthrie are creations of certain individuals such as Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Joe Klein, Marjorie Guthrie, and, especially, Woody himself. They are also the creations of places, events, and historical dynamics, such as the Depression and Dust Bowl, American Communism, and a postmodern ethos. Despite this variety of influences, the formative ones of Woody's lifetime which associated him with "the folk" and folk music make him an enduring symbol of integrity, authenticity, and the "common man", or "the people". As such, the symbol of Woody Guthrie is a form of cultural currency used and reused to explore and define these ideas which have captivated and continue to captivate the American consciousness in its effort to define itself.
While Woody has been greatly mythologized, his works do tell us a lot about him, the man, and not the myth, even if it is packaged in it. And while the repetition of works devoted to Woody evince a tradition of mythologizing him, they also tell us that Woody was an intriguing, inspiring, and wonderful person. This project looks at the various ways in which Woody mythologized himself and has been mythologized by others. It is my hope that in doing so, it may, in justice and yet another tribute to him, sound the depths of the man beneath the layers of myth as well. Finally, it will also explore certain aspects of the culture of the thirties as they intersect with Woody's life, how they helped to create Woody Guthrie, the man and the myth, and how attitudes toward this era and its attendant culture and concerns are reflected in the mythologizing of Woody Guthrie.