Happy Birthday, Woody!

13 Jul

Woody Guthrie Tomorrow is Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, so let’s get this party started early!

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Democracy Now! discusses Guthrie’s evolution as a performer and activist.

WILL KAUFMAN: Well, he was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, as you said, in 1912. He was born to a middle-class, fairly right-wing family. His father, Charlie Guthrie, was a small-town politician, a real estate agent and Klan supporter, supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.

AMY GOODMAN: Some said he was a Klansman.

WILL KAUFMAN: Yeah, there’s no documentary evidence to firmly establish that Charlie Guthrie was a member of the Klan, but there’s no doubt that he supported them. There’s some anecdotal evidence that he sometimes rode out with them on their adventures and may have participated in a lynching. That affected Woody years later. But there’s no indication that Woody was particularly all that political when he was growing up in Okemah. And then after a number of family tragedies, like the burning down of their house, the death of his older sister in a house fire, the near-fatal burning of his father in a third fire, and the incarceration of his mother in the Oklahoma state mental asylum-she wasn’t crazy; she had the misunderstood and undiagnosed Huntington’s disease-where after all these tragedies, Woody went to join his father in another boom-to-bust oil town in the Texas Panhandle, a place called Pampa, Texas. He dropped out of high school after two years, became a sign painter, married, had his first two children, and then sat there and watched as the Dust Bowl hit the center of the United States, and, you know, tens of thousands of square miles of destroyed farmland just wiped out. Woody was there. And he began to write about the dust.

WOODY GUTHRIE: [singing] Back in Nineteen Twenty-Seven,
I had a little farm and I called that heaven.
Well, the prices up and the rain come down,
And I hauled my crops all into town
I got the money, bought clothes and groceries,
Fed the kids, and raised a family.

Rain quit and the wind got high,
And the black ol’ dust storm filled the sky.
And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine,
And I poured it full of this gas-i-line
And I started, rockin’ an’ a-rollin’,
Over the mountains, out towards the old Peach Bowl.

WILL KAUFMAN: Some of those Dust Bowl ballads come out of, really, his late teens and early twenties, you know. Then he joined about half-a-million other migrants heading westwards towards California, where they had heard there was lots of work out there-and, of course, they were wrong. And it’s there in California when Woody gets-he sort of hooks up with the right people, I suppose, and gets involved in the Popular Front out there in California, and this is the beginning of-really, of his politicization. As you said, began writing columns for the People’s World out there and-in Los Angeles, and got a show on a progressive radio station, KFVD, out in Los Angeles, and begins to circulate around the migrant camps, where the Okies, as they were pejoratively called, were living in old dwellings of tar, paper and tin and old packing crates and the bodies of abandoned cars, under railroad bridges, by the side of rivers and what have you, and getting their heads broken when they dared to organize into unions. And Woody began to witness that and began to write about it. And so, he began to see music as a political weapon then.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Kaufman, talk about 1937, the turning point for Woody Guthrie as he takes on racial issues in this country.

WILL KAUFMAN: Yeah, he-he arrived in California, I think, with the influence of having grown up in a state dominated by the Klan and growing up in a family that supported the Klan. He wasn’t all that racially enlightened when he went out to California. There’s evidence in the Archives that he would, you know, write these mock poems about Africans-African Americans are bathing on the beach in Santa Monica with the-you know, giving off the Ethiopian smell and with jungle rhythms pounding in their veins. And he’d happily sing songs using the N-word and words like “coons” and stuff like that, which were part of that white mountain tradition. And so, he’s on this radio station sometime in 1937, and he announces that he’s going to play a song from Uncle Dave Macon on the Grand Ole Opry, and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, as well, recorded it, a lovely song called “Run, Nigger, Run.” And he announces it, and he plays it.

And he gets a letter from a member of his listening audience the next day. And I know that letter by heart. I’ve seen it. He says, “You were getting along pretty well on your program tonight, until you announced your nigger blues. I’m a Negro, a young Negro in college. And I certainly resented your remark. No person or person of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today.” And that letter really hit Woody like a slap in the face. He was mortified. He apologized profusely on the air the next day. He made a big point of dramatically tearing out the song sheet from his notebook and tearing it to shreds and promising he would never use that word again. And as he later said, “I apologize to the Negro people for the frothings that I let slip out of the corners of my mouth.” So this is the beginning of his conversion, I suppose, to eventually becoming one of the most ardent champions and activists for racial equality.

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