Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era United States

An authentic frontier balladeer, Woody Guthrie expanded the appeal of traditional American folk music by writing protest songs about poverty and social injustice. He inspired generations of politically informed folk and rock musicians, including the Weavers, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and U2.

Summary of Event

Before the Great Depression, the diverse regions composing the American South lagged far behind the rest of the United States in nearly every regard. From the close of the Civil War through Reconstruction and into the 1950’s, the South remained distinctively and overwhelmingly rural. Its economy was tied to a few staples, principally cotton, tobacco, corn, and sugar beets. Farms tended to be small and tenant run; worse, they were enmeshed in the perpetual indebtedness characterizing the sharecrop and crop-lien systems. Labor was cheap and drew subsistence wages. Unions were considered anathema. Internal racial relations steadily, if legally, deteriorated after the close of the nineteenth century, and southerners remained under the dominance of a conservative Democratic Party. [kw]Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era United States (1930’s)[Guthries Populist Songs Reflect the Depression Era United States (1930s)]
[kw]Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era United States, Guthrie’s (1930’s)
[kw]Depression-Era United States, Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the (1930’s)[Depression Era United States, Guthries Populist Songs Reflect the (1930s)]
[kw]United States, Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era (1930’s)
Folk music;American
Great Depression;music
[g]United States;1930’s: Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era United States[07400]
[c]Music;1930’s: Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era United States[07400]
[c]Social issues and reform;1930’s: Guthrie’s Populist Songs Reflect the Depression-Era United States[07400]
Guthrie, Woody
Lomax, Alan
Seeger, Pete

The South’s generally decrepit educational institutions were only one manifestation of the region’s backward social structure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration that one-third of Americans in the 1930’s were ill clad, ill housed, and ill fed perfectly described the American South—which, Roosevelt added, constituted the nation’s number-one economic problem. Such was the cultural plight of Okemah, Oklahoma, where Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born, and of Pampa, Texas, where he was reared.

Woody Guthrie in 1943.

(Library of Congress)

Guthrie’s upbringing, like his region, was sad. His mother steadily declined under the inroads of Huntington’s chorea, an incurable, inherited degenerative disease that would eventually claim Woody and other members of his family as well. His father, although at times on the make as a small-town political worthy, seldom managed to match his luck and competencies with his dreams. It appears likely that Woody’s mother set fire to and killed Woody’s sister and later attempted the same thing with her husband. The family lived poorly, at times being thrown individually or collectively on the sufferance of relatives. Woody wandered away from all of them as soon as he could.

A small, wiry man with fine features and a distinguishing mop of unruly hair, Guthrie was humorous, optimistic, gregarious, generous, infectiously engaging, and immensely talented. He was an omnivorous reader with wide-ranging interests. He was also a self-taught cartoonist, versifier, poet, cornball humorist, and explosively undisciplined writer. He had an amazingly eclectic bent, heedlessly putting his own words to tunes written by others, notably those of famed hymnists and of the great Virginia folksinging Carter Family. Unlike his later friends Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and the musically well-trained Pete Seeger, Guthrie was a mediocre guitarist. His nasal voice was untrained except by experience. Although he married three times and had many children, he was lovingly lazy, feckless, adulterous, frequently drunken, and an irresponsible family man. He was the quintessential free spirit—the “ramblin’ man” of song and story.

From his early days in Pampa, Guthrie’s real family was made up of the marginally employed and the dispossessed: oil-field roughnecks and roustabouts, Okies—southwestern farmers of the nation’s Dust Bowl who were evicted from their lands and who migrated to California by the tens of thousands—railroad tramps, hoboes, dockers, seamen, the remaining Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World), “Reds,” migratory workers, and unskilled laborers. It was for audiences of these people that Guthrie began singing and songwriting with hillbilly bands in Texas and thereafter on radio and in public appearances from Los Angeles to New York City. He sought to give the beleaguered masses relief and to shore up their dignity and sense of purpose. It was through their appreciation of him that he persistently sought a place in the public domain, using his untrained but authentic folk voice to carry his populist messages.

Guthrie first gained prominence with his “old-time hill-country songs” on the Los Angeles radio station KFVD in 1936 before an audience largely composed of Dust Bowl migrants. He augmented his reputation when he moved to New York City—in the 1930’s the nation’s radical capital—joining union, Communist, and Popular Front political causes and accepting welcome as a folk hero. There, in 1940, he began writing his Columbia River and Grand Coulee Dam songs—“Roll on Columbia,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Jack Hammer John,” “Hard Traveling,” and, in a different context, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Those Oklahoma Hills,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Typically, Guthrie attempted to use his music as a vehicle in the class struggle. While Guthrie was in New York, Pete Seeger persuaded him to join the Almanac Singers, Almanac Singers whose political purposes appeared identical to Guthrie’s and with whom he wrote and sang many more songs.

Thanks to the genius of folklorist Alan Lomax (later a close friend), Guthrie was interviewed and recorded for the Library of Congress on March 21, 22, and 27, 1940. In the recordings, he presented his landmark protest songs, among them “Tom Joad,” “Dust Can’t Kill Me,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “Do Re Mi,” “Blowin’ Down This Road,” and “Dust Pneumonia Blues.” In the meantime, he continued writing and singing union songs at picket lines, rallies, and fund-raisers. His compositions included prolabor songs such as “Union Maid” and others equally political in nature such as “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).”

Guthrie, fully at home with the American proletariat and already a folk hero by the close of the 1930’s, believed that the oppressed, individually and collectively, had both the right and the responsibility to sing their protests in the face of injustice. Unlike some intellectuals and academicians of his day, he was a populist by tradition and a communist of a sort by experience. He was a utopian, largely uninterested in accumulating money and even less interested in power or political position for himself. Rather, Guthrie used his heartfelt folk renditions to ensure himself a place in the public memory. It was fame that he sought—and managed to achieve.


Philosophically, Guthrie identified the spirit and content of his songs and writings with those of Robert Burns, Walt Whitman, and Alexander Pushkin (just as he identified his politics with those of Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Karl Marx), all of whom spread their messages by speaking, writing, and rhyming in the vernacular. The immediate tradition on which Guthrie drew, however—the tradition that he would elaborate and help to expand—was nourished by his southern environment. Protest songs were commonplace in the repertoires of southern blues and country (or “hillbilly”) singers, as well as among some of the region’s gospel singers, by the 1920’s.

Union organizing efforts among southern laborers and tenant farmers, successions of strikes in the Piedmont textile towns, and lockouts, strikes, and open warfare between capital and labor in the eastern Kentucky and Cumberland coalfields from the late 1920’s through the mid-1930’s yielded substantial crops of revolutionary lyrics. These were partly inspired and augmented by the Communist-led National Miners’ Union, National Textile Workers’ Union, and Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, but they also grew from the almost endless erosions of hard times. Songs written by a young Gastonia, North Carolina, mother and textile worker, Ella May Wiggins, Wiggins, Ella May who was murdered in 1929 by antiunion thugs, not only lifted the morale of her fellow workers but also advertised their cause. Similarly, in Kentucky’s coal mining Harlan County, Florence Reece’s Reece, Florence “Which Side Are You On?” aimed at brutal company-paid deputy sheriffs and became one of labor’s most beloved ballads. Elsewhere in Kentucky, similar anticapitalist balladeers sprang forth, including Aunt Molly Jackson (“I Am a Union Woman”), Sara Ogan (“I Hate the Capitalist System”), and Jim Garland (“I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister”). Scores of other southern protest singers and their songs have been described by such folklorist-historians as R. Serge Denisoff, John Greenway, Archie Green, and Lawrence Gellert.

Guthrie’s reputation and influence surmounted them all by the close of the 1930’s. Ironically, too, like his fellow southern protesters, his songs and character became as well known in northern liberal circles as they were generally throughout the South. In New York, particularly, Guthrie became a rallying point for other expatriate southern musicians such as Lee Hays, Sonny Terry, Josh White, Brownie McGhee, Aunt Molly Jackson, Sis Cunningham, and the inimitable Leadbelly; many of these performers sang or appeared with the Almanac Singers or with Seeger’s legendary folk band, the Weavers. Within a national context, however, even in the 1930’s, Guthrie and his fellow protest singers enjoyed only limited visibility, and the significance of their music went largely unnoticed.

Even so, Guthrie’s songs and social messages directly influenced many country singers and songwriters in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and many of these musicians won national celebrity during the protests of civil rights advocates, college and university students, feminists, and peace activists during the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. Among the most prominent was Seeger, a responsible, cultivated, musically trained, and disciplined Harvard University dropout who not only worked closely with Guthrie—and regarded him as a mentor—but also continued Guthrie’s commitment to folk protest songs as weapons against social injustice. With the commercialization of folk music in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, the Guthrie cult that Seeger stimulated placed Seeger himself in the forefront of the urban folk music revival. Other Guthrie disciples who gained prominence just before and immediately after Guthrie’s death were his devoted imitator Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Guthrie’s dear friend Cisco Houston.

Guthrie’s work began to receive renewed attention in the late 1950’s, when such folk-oriented bands as the Kingston Trio attained national prominence. Soon, popular folk groups including the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Brothers Four, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, in company with solo artists such as Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Odetta, and Judy Collins, were playing and recording Guthrie material and giving added currency to his work.

It was Robert Zimmerman, a fanatical devotee of Guthrie’s music, who, as Bob Dylan, Dylan, Bob caught the wave of radical folk music in the early 1960’s and carried Guthrie’s style to new aesthetic and popular heights. Much of the best of the material on his first album, Bob Dylan, both in substance and style is classic Guthrie. Although the immensely creative and productive Dylan subsequently moved through at least half a dozen stylistic phases, it was in the person of a Guthrie-style balladeer that he became a popular national folk-protest phenomenon. In so doing, he ensured the longevity of Guthrie’s strain of music in the nation’s popular culture. Folk music;American
Great Depression;music

Further Reading

  • Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York : W. W. Norton, 2004. Comprehensive biography of Guthrie, beginning with his Oklahoma ancestors and concluding with his children. Bibliographic references, discography, and index.
  • Denisoff, R. Serge. Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. An excellent discussion of southern protest singers, including Guthrie, their connections with northern radicals, and the effects of this affiliation on the development of urban folk music. Notes, good bibliography, and index.
  • Guthrie, Woody. Art Works. Edited by Nora Guthrie and Steven Brower, with contributions from Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy. New York: Rizzoli, 2005. When Guthrie first set out for California, he planned to make his living as an artist and cartoonist, not a singer. This first-ever comprehensive collection of his art, journals, and sketchbooks provides a vital glimpse into the young Guthrie and the lesser-known visual side of his talents. Bibliographic references.
  • _______. Born to Win. Edited by Robert Shelton. New York: Macmillan, 1965. A collection of Guthrie’s essays, poems, notes, lyrics, and letters. Conveys the spirit of a man whose often sad life might have made him a loser, but did not. Filled with Guthrie’s wonderfully humorous, sometimes biting, cartoons and sketches, as well as with verses, lyrics, and rhymes.
  • Hampton, Wayne. Guerilla Minstrels. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986. A fine study of the protest tradition through analysis of four individuals: Joe Hill, John Lennon, Guthrie, and Dylan. Engagingly written. Although sympathetic to each of these protest singers, the author maintains critical objectivity. Very informative on Guthrie-Dylan linkages. There are a few photos, page notes, a splendid select bibliography for each singer, discographies, and an excellent double-columned index. Essential reading.
  • Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. An important nonacademic study of Guthrie’s character rather than an analysis of his music or its impact. A comprehensive, easy to read, matter-of-fact, and objective biography. Among the several biographies of Guthrie, this is in many ways the best. Many photos, annotated chapter notes in place of bibliography, and excellent double-columned index. Must reading.
  • Malone, Bill C. Southern Music, American Music. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979. A well-written, scholarly survey of the subject. Excellent for placing Guthrie in a broad context, and more important for underlining the powerful influences of varieties of southern music on the national musical culture. No illustrations, but an outstanding bibliographical essay, and a useful index. A very informative work.
  • Marsh, Dave, and Harold Leventhal, eds. Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait, Woody Guthrie. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Posthumous editing of Guthrie’s scrapbooks and other personal sources recapitulates Guthrie’s life in his own words. Provides an intimate chronological view of his life until illness overwhelmed him in 1952. Includes explanatory introductions by the editors, many photos, and many of Guthrie’s wonderful cartoons and sketches.
  • Partridge, Elizabeth. This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie. New York: Viking, 2002. Biography of Guthrie and analysis of his songs. Bibliographic references and index.

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