With the centennial of his birth on the horizon, Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Guthrie (1912-1967) is undergoing a revival, with his songs being performed by his son Arlo, his friend and colleague Pete Seeger and others at the Occupy Wall Street site and other Occupy locales and a foundation controlled by one of Oklahoma’s richest men, George Kaiser of Tulsa and San Francisco, planning a permanent Woody Guthrie museum in Tulsa. Guthrie is finally getting a measure of respect from at least some people in his native state, although Oklahomans have long ago turned their collective backs on the radical socialism that characterized early 20th Century Oklahoma.
Link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/12/28/MNR51MHETU.DTL That aspect of Oklahoma surprised me, as the state is now one of the most conservative places in the country. It’s a “red” state, but not the kind of “red” it was when Woody was growing up there, when voters for agrarian socialist candidates turned out in force. And I’m willing to bet that most of the “Occupy” folks don’t have a clue about the significance of Woody Guthrie or Arlo Guthrie or Pete Seeger, for that matter.
The publication of Will Kaufman’s “Woody Guthrie, American Radical” (University of Illinois Press, 304 pages, 21 black and white photographs, notes, index, bibliography, $29.95) will provide readers with the context needed to understand this complex and conflicted man, who invented much of his life for public consumption. The book is part of the U of I’s enormous Musicians in American Life series, with a list of the books in the series printed at the end of the volume.
If you’re looking for a full-scale biography of Guthrie, you’ll be disappointed, because many of the details of Guthrie’s personal life, including his marriages and affairs are only hinted at in this book. Where Kaufman shines is his narrative of the transformation of a middle-class kid who had a father who was a real estate speculator and oil man in their hometown of Okemah, in east central Oklahoma. Contrary to Woody Guthrie’s later “recollections” Charles Guthrie was a racist and may have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as one biographer cited by Kaufman asserts. Woody, born July 14, 1912, was named for the then governor of New Jersey and later president of the U.S. Woodrow Wilson, whose racism and hatred and harsh treatment of “radicals” during the 1919-20 “Red Scare” have been amply documented.
Kaufman doesn’t point out the irony of the so-called progressive Democratic Party bookending Woody Guthrie’s life with twin “Red Scares” as he and his friends, including Pete Seeger having their patriotism questioned by that most un-American of committees, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the administration of a Democratic president, Harry Truman, whom Guthrie hated for his anti-Communist stance and alleged betrayal of the union movement.
Woody was a stalwart in supporting unions, especially the CIO variety — including the coal miners — which ended up as Woody’s “God That Failed” as they turned conservative, tossing out their “radical” members. Woody joined a union during his service with the Merchant Marine during World War II. (When his tour of duty in the Merchant Marine ended, Woody was drafted into the Army). The unions, including his own National Maritime Union (NMU), ended up disappointing Guthrie as they purged their far-left and Communist members to comply with the witch-hunt Post-WW II climate.
Kaufman leaves open the question of whether Woody Guthrie was a “card-carrying” member of the Communist Party, but he says there is no question that Guthrie supported the party through its many twists and turns, including the Soviet Union’s pact with Hitler’s Germany in 1939, when many leftists departed the party in disgust at what they viewed was a pact with the devil. Guthrie, Kaufman writes, was a lifelong fan of dictator Josef Stalin and went from opposing any efforts to supply the Allies when the U.S. was technically neutral to supporting those efforts after Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. Leftists had to be quick on their feet in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Kaufman traces Guthrie’s political awakening and activism throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Civil Rights struggle, and the poison of McCarthyism. He writes that far from being a civil rights backer, Guthrie through the 1930s shared the racism of his father, playing a virulent anti-black song on a radio station in Los Angeles in 1937. A college educated black man called the station to complain, starting the purported “Dust Bowl Troubadour” on the road to being a strong supporter of the rights of black Americans. The “Dust Bowl” myth was part of the Guthrie legend, as he was not part of the migration so movingly noted by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath” and WPA writers and photographers like Dorothea Lange.
Kaufman devotes considerable space to this transformation, including a description of white racist rioting in the summer of 1949 at Peekskill (Westchester County) NY, protesting the appearance of black singer Paul Robeson, Guthrie and other artists, including Seeger and fellow members of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers. Kaufman, who is not only a university professor in the U.K. but a performer of folk music himself, examines Guthrie’s role in the development of a workers’ culture in the context of radical activism spearheaded by the Communist Party of the USA, the Popular Front, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Kaufman also establishes Guthrie’s significance in the perpetuation of cultural front objectives into the era of the “New Left” and beyond, particularly through his influence on the American and international protest song movement.
Kaufman’s book draws on a wealth of previously unseen archival materials such as letters, song lyrics, essays, personal reflections, and other manuscripts. The Woody Guthrie that emerges is a much more realistic, complex man than the legend portrayed in his novel “Bound for Glory” (1944) and other writings.
Devotees of Guthrie will also be drawn to the section describing fans of the singer like “Ramblin'” Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan and others who carried on his tradition and kept him relevant as he lay in a psychiatric hospital deteriorating from the effects of Huntington’s disease, which he most likely inherited from his mother Nora Belle Guthrie. Huntington’s disease — also incorrectly called Huntington’s chorea — is a debilitating brain disease that causes shaking like Parkinson’s disease. Bob Dylan’s mannerisms while performing were mocked by many of his early critics as mimicking Guthrie. Most of the early critics changed their views on Dylan and Elliott, giving them credit for keeping the legacy of Guthrie alive through the era of the Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell and other true commercializers of “folk” music. (For more on Huntington’s disease — for which there still is no cure — click: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001775/).
Maybe it’s politically incorrect to point out what Kaufman, a Jew, failed to do, but many of the devotees of Guthrie’s music, including performers on the Almanac Singers and The Weavers (Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman), were themselves Jewish. Guthrie’s wife Marjorie, the mother of Arlo, was the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish song writer and poet and sometime collaborator with Woody. Woody and his mother-in-law got along just fine! Jack Elliott (born Elliott Charles Adnopoz) was Jewish, as are Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds (1900-1978), famous for “Little Boxes.” Kaufman does emphasize that the white rioters at Peekskill targeted both blacks and Jews with their hatred and rock throwing — and the participation in the rioting by police officers who were pledged to protect peaceful citizens but ended up aiding the racist attackers.
If you’re into music, Kaufman’s book is invaluable. If you’re into this nation’s radical past, it’s eye-opening. I recommend it to all readers as one of the best books of 2011.
About the author
Will Kaufman is a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, England. He is the author of three previous books, most recently American Culture in the 1970s. Also a professional folksinger and multi-instrumentalist, he has performed hundreds of musical presentations on Woody Guthrie at universities, music festivals, and folk clubs throughout Europe and the United States.