According to Woody Guthrie's own biography at woddyguthrie.org, "Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. Describing the small frontier town in Okfuskee County, Woody writes: "Okemah was one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns." Woody was the second-born son to Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician. His Kansas-born mother profoundly influenced Woody in ways which would become apparent as he grew older. Slightly built, with an extremely full and curly head of hair, Woody was both a precocious and unconventional boy from the start. A keen observer of the world around him, during his early years in Oklahoma, Woody experienced the first in a series of tragic personal losses - the death of his older sister, Clara - would haunt him throughout his life. This followed by the financial and physical ruin, and the institutionalization of his mother would devastate Woody's family and home, forming a uniquely wry and rambling outlook on life.
Woody became part of the great migration out West, the one that would be later called the "Dust Bowl" which saw countless millions migrate to Washington, Oregon and California. These people would later become known as Okies, and those who joined them from Arkansas would become Arkies. These people will forever be immortalized in the John Ford movie, "Grapes of Wrath," written by a local Californian, John Steinbeck, but discussing the sudden migration of countless thousands of farm workers to the Salinas Valley in California's golden coast. By the time he arrived in California, in 1937, Woody had experienced the intense scorn, hatred, and antagonism of resident Californians who were opposed to the influx of outsiders. Woody's identification with outsider status would become part and parcel of his political and social positioning, one which gradually worked its way into his songwriting, as evident in his Dust Bowl Ballads such as I Ain't Got No Home, Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad, Talking Dust Bowl Blues, and Tom Joad and Hard Travelin'. His 1937 radio broadcasts on KFVD, Los Angeles, and XELO in Tijuana, Mexico, brought Woody and his new singing partner, Maxine Crissman or Lefty Lou, wide public attention, while providing him with a forum from which he could develop his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism on topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the humanist principles of Jesus Christ, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Union organizers.
But Woody wasn't satisfied with his newfound fame in Los Angeles. He traveled to New York City where he was immediately embraced by the leftist entertainment community of the day. Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sony Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, among others, became Woody's friends and collaborators, taking up such social causes as Union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening the Communist Party, and generally fighting for the things they believed in the only way they knew how: through political songs of protest.
And Woody wasn't satisfied with his New York contemporaries either. After only a few years, he set off south in search of his true calling. He soon received an invitation to Oregon where a documentary film project about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam sought to use his songwriting talent. The Bonneville Power Authority placed Woody on the Federal payroll for a month and there he composed yet another remarkable collection of songs: The Columbia River Songs, which include Roll on Columbia and Grand Coulee Dam.
Around the same time, he joined Pete Seeger in the legendary folk-protest group Almanac Singers, with whom he toured the country, and moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village.
Guthrie originally wrote and sang anti-war songs with the Almanac Singers, but after America's entry into World War II he began writing anti-fascist tunes. Guthrie famously wrote the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. Woody was a devout anti-fascist, and served several tours of duty in WWII. Woody served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army, shipping out to sea on several occasions with his buddies Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi. In one of many anti-Fascist songs written during the war, Woody tells us:
We were seamen three, / Cisco, Jimmy and me
Shipped out to beat the fascists / Across the land and sea.
In 1940, Woody penned, "This Land is Your Land," a take off on the Baptist hymn, "When the World's on Fire," recorded by the Carter Family ten years before. Nevertheless, the song became almost an instant traditional ballad that Woody wrote specifically to replace the song, "God Bless America," a song Woody felt was undeserving of the high praise given it by others. Woody was very patriotic and always sought to address the true concerns of this country. He would take whatever step, walk whatever mile, ride whatever link in order to get his point across. In 1967, Pete Seeger wrote of Woody during this time frame, "When Woody Guthrie was singing hillbilly songs on a little Los Angeles radio station in the late 1930s, he used to mail out a small mimeographed songbook to listeners who wanted the words to his songs. On the bottom of one page appeared the following: "This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."
Fortunately, we can still find commentary by the Library of Congress back in 1941, "Several letters reflect Guthrie's Communist ideals in his sensitivity to the condition of the working class and to problems of corruption. For example, in his letter of February 15, 1941 Guthrie writes, "folks are just plain folks everywhere you go, all has been hit hard, went through several political cyclones, been sold out so often that they feel like they've got pimps." In another letter, called Vote for Bloat, he remarks on problems with elections in the United States:
"The average elections are about as useful as a slop jar without a bottom in it.... Down in Baltimore Md., they won't let you buy no liquor on election day and so they sell more than ever on that day. They say they want you to vote sober. What difference does it make, you couldn't vote no wronger. Sometimes I think they ought to try it the other way. If the people was to ever win an election, they'd think they was dead and in heaven, I mean in heaven without a having to die.... Some states charge you $1.75 to vote they call it poll tax, that takes a weeks groceries and snuff and most folks figure that the democrats aint worth 1.75 and the republicans aint worth that much." Woody could have been describing the 2008 elections for what it's worth. He was a patriot before his time, a true balladeer of American folklore, who lived the hard, rural life, and who sang praises about it. This is also part of my upbringing, so I feel a kinship. I must say that it is also the life of many people around the world, all of whom could share in his music.
Of course, being a child of the 60s, I can't leave this message with a discussion of just Woody Guthrie. It would be like discussing one side of the coin. By the time I heard of the person, "Woody Guthrie," as opposed to the "song by Woody Guthrie, 'This Land is Your Land,'" I had already heard of his son, Arlo Guthrie. For those who lived during the late 60s, there is no mistaking two great phenomes during those years, Yellow Submarine and Alice's Restaurant. Unbeknownst to us hippies, we were being given the teachings of Woody through his son, Arlo. All of the absurdities of government were well exposed. Arlo's exposure of a blind judge to proceed over his case, after the prosecution put into evidence 27 pictures is hilarious.
Arlo Guthrie was born with a guitar in one hand and a harmonica in the other, in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York in 1947. He is the eldest son of America's most beloved singer/writer/philosopher Woody Guthrie and Marjorie Mazia Guthrie. Arlo Guthrie's career exploded in 1967 with the release of "Alice's Restaurant", whose title song premiered at the Newport Folk Festival helped foster a new commitment among the '60s generation to social consciousness and activism. Arlo went on to star in the 1969 Hollywood film version of "Alice's Restaurant", directed by Arthur Penn.
Here, in this excerpt from Alice's Restaurant, we hear about the absurdity of American justice on a local level. The scene is Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the day after Thanksgiving, 1965. Arlo and his friend Ray were accused of dumping garbage on the side of the road. As he stated earlier in the song, "we came to a side road, and off the side of the side road was another fifteen-foot cliff, and at the bottom of the cliff was another pile of garbage. And we decided that one big pile was better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up, we decided to throw ours down. That's what we did." This event triggered a response by the police that became so tragically comical as to render the entire judicial proceedings a farce. In Arlo's own words: