Woody Guthrie the Folk Hero was the creation of many factors: notions about folk music in general, and Alan Lomax's notions about folk music specifically, a community of folk artists in Greenwhich Village, artists' interests in the "common man" and the documentary form in the 1930's, American Communism in the 30's, and Woody's own experience and personality.
All of these influences converged in New York in the 40's and 50's. Klein suggests that it was the people in New York, including Leadbelly, Seeger, and Lomax who taught Woody who he was and explained to him what he was doing with his music. 1 It was here that a community of folk music thrived quietly in the 40's and 50's. And it was out of this New York scene that the urban folk revival of the late 50's and 60's grew, creating a popular definition of "the folk" and folk music to endure until today. Woody was at the center of this activity and conception and undeniably played a vital role as Folk Hero.
If the definition of folk music is any one thing, it is unstable. Some define folk music by its style. Others define it by its origin; if "the folk" produced it, then it is folk music. Yet, definitions of "the folk" vary as much as those of "folk music". Some answers only rattle the question harder: Can the folk be urban as well as rural? Literate as well as illiterate? Other considerations in determining what is folk music include the age of a song and the status of its composer: Can it have a single composer, or must the song be communally created and re-created through time and generations? If there is a single composer, can he be trained in music or must he be untrained? Can she make money and still be a folk artist or does this go against the fundamental nature and use of folk music? Is music that is transmitted through writing as legitimately "folk" as music transmitted orally? 2
As someone claimed by others as an authentic folk find, Woody Guthrie, and the creation of his image essentially constitute a locus point of these questions. In and through Woody Guthrie, a nation that has come to think of Woody as the father of folk music has grappled with these questions of Who is "the folk"? What is the purpose of folk music and music itself? What is authenticity? And What are the roles of politics and profit in regards to music and art in general? The myth of Woody Guthrie the Folk Hero is nothing less than the nation's struggle to answer these questions in the 1930's and beyond.
It's clear that Alan Lomax had certain ideas about "the folk" and folk music when he met Woody Guthrie, and it is impossible to know the extent to which Woody's image came to be made in the likeness of these ideas. Alan Lomax and his father published collections of folk music, and the prefaces to these collections show how he conceived of folk music. They thus introduce us to some of the ideas associated with Woody, creating the myth of the Folk Hero and the Greenwhich Village folk world. As interesting as what Lomax writes is the mythic tone with which he writes:
"A people made a three-thousand-mile march between the eastern and western oceans. Songs traveled with them; songs were born along the way. Every hamlet produced its crop of local ballads of murders, disasters, and scandals. Every occupation had its specialized poesy. Every fiddler put his own twists on the tunes he learned from his pappy. Every child had its own skipping jingle, a little different from the next child....Songs flowered up out of the lives of the people as liberally as wildflowers on the West Texas plains in April, and most of them vanished as quickly, sowing the land with seed for the next springtime crop of songs." 3
Lomax romanticizes folk music into an organic process as natural as nature itself and as widespread as the nation and its landscape. Lomax symbolically unites folk music with nature and geography in a way that ironically prefigures the oversimplification of Woody's songs, especially "This Land is Your Land", when he was awarded the Department of Interior's Conservation Service Award in 1966. This citation also suggests that the music is a way at the people who produced it, the means to discern and understand them.
The songs also represent the whole people:
"This is a sampling of America's folk songs-homemade hand-me-downs in words and music, songs accepted by whole communities, songs voted good by generations of singers and passed on by word of mouth to succeeding generations, a tradition quite distinct from popular song (made to sell and sell quickly) and cultivated art (made, so much of it, to conform to prestige patterns)". 4
This description suggests that because folk music is created, recreated, and handed down through a process of consensus, it is authentic, truly representative of "the people". The music is also important to Lomax as an alternative to the commercialism of popular music and the limitations of cultivated music. This implicitly forces some limits on the folk artist who must avoid evidence of education or profit as signs of inauthenticity.
Lomax also endows this concept of folk music with the symbolic value of the myth of the "common man", reminiscent of the Dust Bowl Refugee. He writes:
"This art lives upon the lips of the multitude and is transmitted by the grapevine, surviving sometimes for centuries because it reflects so well the deepest emotional convictions of the common man. This is a truly democratic art, painting a portrait of the people, unmatched for honesty and validity in any other record....Folk song, like any serious art, deals with realities-with poor boys a long way from home, with workers killed on the job, with bloody- handed murderers, with children dancing and fighting in the back yards, and with the dreams of all of these folk. There are deep shadows on this landscape, the shadows of poverty and graceless toil. There are bitter hard lines in these faces, lines of violence and cruelty...". 5
Here, Lomax associates folk music with the "common man" and associates the "common man" with suffering, violence, and hard times. The real expression of the people is made practically synonymous with expressions of suffering and sadness, and documentation of evil. Indeed, in a different preface, Lomax and his father support the theory that "'the truest, the most intimate folk music, is that produced by suffering'". 6 It is easy to see how Woody Guthrie, with his extensive repertoire of Dust Bowl songs would fit Alan's mold of the truest folk artist.
It is interesting that Lomax uses the visual metaphors of shadows on landscape and lines in faces which resonate with anyone familiar with the anthropological photo-documentaries produced in the 30's by partners such as Dorothea Lange and Paul Shuster Taylor, and Margaret Burke-White and Erskine Caldwell. Alan Lomax was among those artists and others, including "Thomas Hart Benton in painting, Martha Graham in dance, [and] John Steinbeck in literature...searching for the soul of the American people, attempting to capture, for all time, the dignity and strength of character of the great American common man in the heroic struggle against adversity." 7 This effort to find the "common man" in the struggle against adversity was inextricably linked with the American Communism of the 1930's, centered in Greenwhich Village, and Roosevelt's New Deal, both of which relied heavily on the myth of the "common man". Lomax touches on this effort:
"White Americans, perhaps at first attracted by the exotic rhythms and earthy poesy of Negro song, have been deeply stirred by the poignant sorrow, the biting irony, and the noble yearning for a better world implicit there. And with every passing year American music becomes more definitely an Anglo-African blend. In American folk song, indeed--A man ain't nothin' but a man.... Certainly this is what the folklorist has to say to his audience. He goes where book-learning is not. He lives with the underprivileged. He brings back the proof in their songs and stories and dances that these folks are expressive and concerned about the beautiful and the good. In doing so, he continually denies the validity of caste lines and class barriers....the folklorist has the duty to speak as the advocate of the common man." 8
For Lomax, folklore and folk music are tools of denial and advocacy in the effort to create a better world.
WPA FSA photographs by Dorothea Lange --
The importance of the myth of the "common man" to the Communist and New Deal ideologies and to the interests of Lomax and other documentarists of the 30's is mirrored in the role of the Dust Bowl Refugee in relation to the myth of the Folk Hero. For, Woody's Dust Bowl background and songs are what marked him as the "common man" through suffering. Therefore, his biography, the story of his life, became central to the politics of folk music; "Musical styles, social values, and political ideals adhere to an actual-though dramaticized-life story. In the process, a biography comes to support political abstractions, and an ideology is humanized." 9 Woody's image and the myths of the Dust Bowl Refugee and the Folk Hero were essential gears in the larger, political machine.
At the intersection of the myths of Dust Bowl Refugee and the Folk Hero, Woody told and retold his life story on the Library of Congress recordings, in prefaces to folk music song books, auto-biographies, liner notes, and performances, loaning these projects of the musical political left the value of authenticity. His myth even lent value to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. In a mutual exchange of symbolic currency, Woody wrote the seventeen-versed "Tom Joad", a thorough retelling of Steinbeck's novel, for his Dust Bowl Ballads with Victor Records in their attempt to capitalize on the success of the movie version. In the Communist Daily Worker a piece promoting the Grapes of Wrath benefit where Lomax first saw Woody, a photo of Woody bore the caption "'Woody - that's the name, straight out of Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' - sings People's Ballads'." 10 And, of course, there is the statement Steinbeck made about Woody that appears in nearly everything and anything written about him:
"Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he had any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen, There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit." 11
Perhaps no other statement so seamlessly melds the Dust Bowl Refugee, Folk Hero, and American Hero as Steinbeck's. This association of Woody with Grapes of Wrath is exemplary of the cross-disciplinary exchange and association of symbols to create and enhance the meaning and authenticity of these symbols and their correlative projects and ideologies.
In addition to his biography, Woody's songs were well-suited to the leftist search for and advocacy of the "common man". The stories in these songs often celebrated the common man, be it Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James, or the every-man persona from which so many of the songs are sung. The style also celebrates the "common man". The minimalism of the music which highlights Woody's voice bespeaks the importance of the individual, while the untrained, talking style of singing celebrates the common man, the ordinary and average and true, without embellishments. The imperfections also show the humanity of the singer which is in line with the humanitarian view of the common man, acknowledging his importance and individuality and countering the capitalist view which reduces him to a cog in the machine of labor. Stylistically, the songs also stress the importance of voices and what they have to say; that the lyrics can be clearly heard and understood is paramount. Finally, the simplicity and imperfections of the style suggest that anyone can write and sing these songs, that they belong to everyone and anyone.
Pretty Boy Floyd|
If you'll gather 'round me, children,
A story I will tell
Of Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw,
Oklahoma knew him well.
It was in the town of Shawnee,
It was Saturday afternoon;
His wife beside him in his wagon,
As into town they rode.
There a deputy sheriff approached him
In a manner rather rude,
Using vulgar words of language,
And his wife she overheard.
Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain,
And the deputy grabbed a gun;
And in the fight that followed,
He laid that deputy down.
He took to the trees and timbers
And he lived a life of shame;
Every crime in Oklahom
Was added to his name.
Yes, he took to the trees and timbers
On that Canadian River's shore;
And Pretty Boy found a welcome
At a many a farmer's door.
There's a many a starving farmer
The same old story told,
How this outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little home.
Others tell you 'bout a stranger
That come to beg a meal,
And underneath his napkin
Left a thousand dollar bill.
It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There come a whole car load of groceries
With a letter that did say:
"You say that I'm an outlaw,
You say that 'm a thief;
Here's a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief."
Now as through this world I ramble,
I see lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
But as through your life you travel,
As through your life you roam,
You won't never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
To Woody, as to Lomax, Seeger, and others of the Greenwhich Village folk world, songs were weapons to be used in a battle over the American consciousness, with real political ramifications. In the first show of a short-lived radio program in New York in 1944, Woody told his audience over the airwaves what has been cited again and again as his philosophy of songwriting:
"I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good. I hat a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that....Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling.
I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it's run you down nor rolled over you, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you." 12
People have talked about this statement in terms of Woody's hope and democratic, compassion, but I'm more interested in his use of the words "hate" and "fight". They emphasize that Woody's songwriting was a form of battle and that this battle took place in thought; his weapons were conceptual, denying the messages of complacency and failure found in popular music and culture at the time, and advocating ideas relevant to and supportive of "the people", or the "common man". Woody once told Alan Lomax that "'With all these poor folks wandering around the country as homeless as little doggies, what I should do is strop on a couple of six-shooters and blow open the doors of the banks and feed people and give them houses. The only reason I don't do that is because I ain't got the guts'." 13 For Woody as much as for Lomax, folk music was a form of power. It was a "conceptual power, the power of awareness, of consciuosness, and of imagination. This notion of power is clearly utopian. It has never claimed to be anything else. And yet it is very real in the sense that it is a truly awesome force capable of changing the perceptions and attitudes of people toward the reality in which they live....Its basis is that if the way people perceive their world is changed, their world will be changed." 14
In addition to promoting and supporting certain ideas with certain political ramifications, Woody's songs also united people in a very practical way in the fight against social injustices. Some of Woody's favorite audiences were union meetings, labor strikes, or rallies. There he could sing topical songs about current events, likely to move the crowd and unite them in the ethos of the songs and import of their messages.
Many who have written about Woody emphasize that his Communism was "instinctual". 15 His concern for the common, working man or woman and his love of the idea of union transcended the Communist ideology and constituted something of a moral, spiritual, or philosophical outlook. This is expressed in Woody's continued use of a Marxist 30's vocabulary throughout his songwriting career. Thus, in "Dear Mr. Roosevelt", Woody comends the president for fighting the war "the union way", for disliking the capitalist leaders, and working to "preserve the world for the people" in World War II. 15
And in "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)" of 1948, Woody sees the report of the plane crash which assured that the victims were just deportees, as another example of the workers' plight in a Capitalist and commercial society; it uses them, refuses to see them as human individuals, but, rather, pronounces them outlaws, like Pretty Boy Floyd. The point is driven home in the repetition throughout the song of the last line of the refrain. It emphasizes the workers' namelessness, as does the metaphor which likens them to inanimate leaves. Finally, the contrast in the fourth verse between the "we" who worked and died and the "you" for whom this work was done reflects the injustice of a Capitalist society, and the need for change announced explicitly in the last verse.
And in "Pastures of Plenty" of 1941, he celebrates the American landscape, technological progress, and the American ideals of freedom, union, hard work, and sacrifice through the trope of the migrant workers' struggle against adversity. The hard life of migration and labor are symbolically united with the diversity, richness, and plenty of the American landscape. The migrants even become part of that landscape, rambling like the Columbia. Yet, the distinction between the persona in which the song is sung, representing the migrant workers, and the you who owns the vines, wine, fight, and valley, and to whom the song is addressed suggest an unjust separation in the midst of this celebration of union. Yet, it is this separation and struggle against the social injustice which symbolize union and sacrifice. Woody's continued use of the 30's Communist ideology makes for a sophisticated song of simultaneous patriotism and protest.
Woody saw the 40's and 50's through a lens forged in the influences and dynamics of the 30's. It is an essentially Marxist vision and its abiding permanence in Woody's work speaks to the powerful influence of the 30's era as well as its importance to Woody as a set of beliefs that transcended the Communist ideology.
As the Dust Bowl Refugee, Woody was the paragon of authenticity in the Greenwhich Village folk music community. As such, his image and example went a long way in setting the standards and defining the ethics of this community. To make the point more accute, not only did Pete Seeger watch and listen to Woody, learning all he could (as would Bob Dylan and countless other fans), but Jack Elliot, who came on the scene in 1951, mimiced Woody to the tee. The instinctual nature of his Communism made him a natural Folk Hero as well as an inspiring and intimidating role model.
Klein suggests that Woody's instinctual Communism made him an intimidating figure in the Hollywood Communist community in 1939 when the Hitler-Stalin pact shook many American Communists' faith in their ideology, hitherto championed by the Soviet Union. It seemed that the same penchant for non-conformity, disregard for money, job security, traditional success, or popularity that marked Matt Jenning's friend enabled Woody to remain true to the party. What mattered most to Woody was that the Communists were still the only organization working on behalf of the workers. Klein writes:
"he radiated a revolutionary fervor that seemed boundless and imposing to the Hollywood progressive types...[they] were intimidated by Woody's effortless purity. They were merely weekend radicals, but he was the real thing-the ultimate proletarian, 'the voice of his people,' as they'd so often described him at fund-raising parties...Woody-an innocent, but no fool-picked up on their deference and treated them with casual disdain, causing some to struggle all the harder for his approval...which, in his blunt, southwestern way, he never granted." 16
Woody's sense of integrity intimidated the progressives in New York as well, where he risked his career in writing for the Daily Worker. His sense of integrity also drove him from New York in an abrupt escape of the commercialism and constricts of his short-lived radio show, "Pipe Smoking Time". These were important gestures of integrity which set a standard for the folk music community:
"everyone cowered before Woody. He was the group's inspiration, the moral leader, the old master...and he never let anyone forget it. He was forever intimidating the others with his political and musical rectitude, and his Oklahoma credentials--they were all dilettantes compared to him...Woody, the dust bowl refugee, was the group's repository of proletarian wisdom, the ultimate arbiter of t aste. He was impossibly arrogant, affecting a general air of impatience with the other Almanacs' hopelessly urban, middlye-class sensibilities, rarely raising his voice but maintaining his authority with grunts, shrugs, and paralytic stares. He had, Bell Lomax thought, the feeling of a loaded gun about him." 17
Woody's standard was also one of rebellion. Frustrated with the Almanacs' political purity and dillettantism, and audiences' disrespect, Woody could be rude and offensive in his interactions with audiences, employers, friends, and co-performers. These expressions of frustration could be so outrageous as to blur the boundary between an expression of political and musical ideology and an expression of Woody's disregard for other people and for traditional notions of propriety and success, which itself blurred into irresponsibility, and even the irrationality of Huntington's Disease. This further melded Woody's Communism with his personality, rendering it all the more instinctual and influencial.
In the preface to Pastures of Plenty, a collection of Woody's drawings and writing, Dave Marsh makes a meaningful observation regarding Woody's life:
"activism wasn't just a matter of rallies and speeches and theoretical jargon. It was a way to build a new world....Guthrie lived in a community suffused with socialism, in which whatever of its principles could be enacted without state power were put into practice. Most important, Woody Guthrie wrote his greatest songs and stories while living among people who believed in and worked toward a high and mighty goal outside of themselves. In many ways, that goal and such work is the subject of all his writing....We, who not only don't live in such a world but are so totally estranged from any long-term vision of the future, can barely imagine what it would mean to live as though such principles and goals were realistic and attainable. We're inclined to deny the possibility that it existed, and Pastures of Plenty gave me my greatest reward with these bits of evidence that it really did." 18
Woody's Communism was paramount to his life and work. And if his life story does nothing else, it reminds us of the presence and importance of American Communism in the 1930's and the role it played in shaping folk music, and a nation's ideals about integrity, authenticity, social responsibility, and "the people".
Woody Guthrie became a central image to the myth of "the folk" or "the people", itself a longstanding myth of America that particularly resonated during the era of the 30's. In many ways, the myth of Woody the Folk Hero was a creation of its time. We might ask if Woody the Folk Hero or Woody the man would have come to be if not for the convergence of Communist, anthropological, and documentary interests in New York specifically, and in the country at large. Similarly, we might also ask if the community of folk music in Greenwhich Village, and folk music itself, built on the superstructure of Lomax's ideals would ever have come to be if not for Woody and the central role he played in authenticating and realizing those ideals in his image and his life.