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Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Two

Oklahoma has a bittersweet relationship with the legend of famous songwriter Woody Guthrie, who was born in Okemah on July 14, 1912. For some Oklahomans, primarily the state’s right-wing power elitists, Guthrie’s reputation has always been tainted by his affiliation with the American Communist Party before World War II.
Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo

A New York Times article, published in 1972, just five years after Guthrie ’s death, points out that many Okemah, Oklahoma residents were against any public and civic recognition of Guthrie because they remember him as “a left-winger who betrayed the conservatism of rural, east-central Oklahoma . . . “ (Aynes Drummon Jr., The New York Times, December 14, 1972).

Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, operated by the ultra-conservative and super wealthy Gaylord family, has also consistently dismissed Guthrie as a communist and radical. Just a few years ago, reports circulated in the state that the powerful Gaylord family refused to allow a Smithsonian Woody Guthrie exhibit to come to Oklahoma (David Averill, The Tulsa World, January 31, 1999).

But those Okemah residents and the state’s rich and powerful who want to reduce the legacy of Woody Guthrie are intellectually dishonest about the message of Guthrie’s music. In essence, these reductions are right-wing drivel and propaganda because they do not take into consideration what Guthrie actually wrote and the historical milieu in which he lived. This right-wing disinformation about Guthrie is ultimately the same immorality he fought against all his life.

Here are the facts. Woody Guthrie wrote a column for the leading communist newspaper in this country during the 1930s, though he actually never joined the party. In his writing and songs, he consistently called for equality among all people, and he spoke out for the downtrodden and poor and against the moneyed interests in the country. Guthrie did not care if he was labeled a communist primarily because capitalism had left him broke and miserable like millions of other people in this country during the long and destructive financial depression of the 1930s. (Rest assured, the filthy rich owners of The Daily Oklahoman never went hungry during this time period.)

One verse of Guthrie's most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” explains it all:

One Sunday morning
In the shadows of the steeple
By the relief office
I seen my people
As they stood hungry
I stood there whistling this
This land was made for you and me”

Subtle and simplistic as these lines may be, they argue succinctly for a moral vision for the country as they point out the hypocrisy and immorality of a right-wing religious movement, an ugly, national burden then and today.

(Today, I say with complete confidence, the last line of the above lyrics--"This land was made for you and me"--echoes again in Oklahoma and the Great Plains. You can hear it everywhere. Are you listening?)

Guthrie’s lyrics in songs such as “Dust Bowl Refugees” and “The Ballad of Tom Joad” drew attention to the plight of millions of Americans whose lives were changed forever by the depression and dust storms that rolled into the Great Plains during the 1930s.

“Yes we ramble and we roam
And the highway, that’s our home
It’s a never ending highway
For a Dust Bowl refugee” (Guthrie“Dust Bowl Refugees”)

Another famous Guthrie song, “Going Down the Road,” depicted a defiant Okie looking for work:

“I’m looking for a job
With honest pay
And I ain’t gonna
Be treated this a way”

In addition, Guthrie’s lyrics celebrated the growing union movement in this country. In songs such as “Union Feeling” and “Union Maid,” Guthrie offers unionism as an almost utopian vision of reality.

”I can see my union like the sun, like the sun
I can see my union shining like the sun
Yes, it draws us all together,
Melts us into one
It’s my good old union feeling in my soul" (“Union Feeling”)

In the song, “I Don’t Like The Way This World’s A-Treating Me,” Guthrie criticizes the United States government in direct terms and speaks out against censorship:

“I don’t like the way this FBI’s treating me
I don’t like the way the spies are treating me
I just don’t like the way these guys are treating me, poor me
It’s the lockup if I speak my mind about it”

In his autobiography, Bound For Glory, Guthrie humanizes the Okies who were evicted from their homes in the 1930s and who then headed west to California only to be greeted with contempt, hatred, and even violence by filthy rich, greedy landowners.

“You’ve seen a million like this already. Maybe you saw them on the crowded side of your big city; the back side, that’s jammed and packed, the hard section to drive through. Maybe you wondered where so many of them come from, how they eat, stay alive, what good they do, what makes them live like this. Ain’t much difference between you and them. If you was to walk out into this big tangled jungle camp and stand there with the other two thousand, somebody would just walk up and shake hands with you and ask you, What kind of work do you do, pardner?" (Bound For Glory, p. 249).

Listen to his music. Read his book and articles. You will find that, historically, Woody Guthrie is one of this country’s great, twentieth-century moralists. A staunch patriot as well, Guthrie his particular American populist views with the politics of his time, and, of course, this included the growing communist and socialist movements in the country before World War II, which at the time blended perfectly with rural Christianity to form a distinctly American-style moral center. It is this moral center that is responsible for national programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Guthrie believed fiercely in the mythology and big idea of America. He is the quintessential American man.

Yet he wrote his songs and newspaper columns during a particular historical period, which was pre-Cold War. International opinion was still out on communism. During the 1930s, for example, millions of Americans, including Will Rogers, looked to the "communist experiment" in Russia as something that might give American government officials new ideas to help those whose lives were being systematically destroyed by the feudalistic and quasi-fascist policies of Republican President Herbert Hoover. Before Hoover became president, thousands of Oklahomans considered themselves socialists. In 1917, for example, the socialist candidate for governor in Oklahoma received twenty-one percent of the vote (Dunbar-Ortiz, Red Dirt: Okie, 1977.). Facts such as these are conveniently ignored by the powerful right-wing in Oklahoma.

Woody Guthrie, then, was a product of his time, a part of a growing populist movement, which was always religious and family centered, that tried to help the most unfortunate in our society. Hunger allows little political choice for those starving to death. Guthrie knew that, and he sang about it, and he tried to find ways to help people.

So before the Cold War, before the Stalin atrocities were made public, before the failure of corrupt communist systems worldwide, millions of hungry and broke Americans looked to communism and socialism as possible answers to this very simple question: How can I get my next meal? Again, this is the type of information the Oklahoma right-wing neglects to mention when it argues against Woody Guthrie and his standing in Oklahoma and American history.

Twenty-three years ago, an University of Oklahoma professor put it this way: “The man was—at least lyrically—a musical genius . . . he was the foremost publicist of the Depression era. His influence on American music has been enormous. Yet we [Oklahoma] don’t mention him [in our textbooks] because of a couple of people in Tulsa claimed he was a communist” (Bonnie Speer, The Daily Oklahoman, November 14, 1982).

Still, even given this, it remains baffling that the Oklahoma power structure would not somehow embrace the legend of a man who some claim invented the American song ballad, who wrote more than 1,000 songs, many of which were not political at all, who wrote widely read newspaper columns and a quirky yet brilliant autobiography. The legend of Woody Guthrie, who also lived in Oklahoma City, could be a major tourist draw if nothing else. (Yet state leaders consistently bemoan the lack of economic opportunities in Oklahoma.) Even in the last few years, Guthrie has continued to be attacked by conservative writers in the state. They label him a “Stalinist communist,” a gross distortion. The website of the Oklahoma Constitution, a radical, right-wing group in the state, once commended its editor for helping “forces in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah who did not wish to honor such a Radical as a hero” (Oklahoma Constitution website, January, 2003).

Conservative groups continue to promote a self-loathing among Oklahomans by denying the state’s residents access to their heroic and true history and identity. It was Guthrie’s Oklahoma roots and ideas that made him a moral compass for this country. It was not the political ideology of some Oklahoma oil company or big city newspaper that prevented starving children from dying along Route 66 during the great migration west. It was the moral messag of Woody Guthriet hat brought the country to its senses. The people who own big corporations could care less about ordinary Oklahomans then and now, and any Oklahoman who thinks differently is either a conservative political hack or a rube in desperate need of a traveling carnival.

In the south, conservatives tolerate and even promote racist ideology as partof cultural “history.” Because it did not become a state until 1907, Oklahoma does not shoulder the racist burden of institutionalized slavery like the deep south, though the state's history is filled with ugly incidents of racism, such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. But the right-wing conservatives do try to make the state’s real history— of Guthrie, Will Rogers, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—seem repugnant and vile when, in fact, this history is heroic, just, and an embodiment of everything that is great about our country and state. Thus, the right-wing now celebrates racism and slavery as “southern heritage” or “southern pride” or “states’ rights,” just as it presents the populist movements in the early twentieth-century in Oklahoma and the Great Plains as “communist” and “socialist.” This right-wing distortion of American history is intellectually dishonest and immoral. It is time for progressives to take a stand against these lies.

(Oh yeah, here is an example of Woody's take on the race issue in his song, “Death Row”:

"If you’re white you’ve got some chance to beat this death row
If you’re white you might get loosed from off this death row
But a man that’s partly black, partly dark, chocolate brown
He ain’t got an earthly chance to beat this death row")

Ultimately, it is difficult to calculate the effect this right-wing, anti-Guthrie propaganda has had on the Oklahoma psyche. It is part of a larger picture, true. Certainly, a people whose history is shamed and denigrated, as it has been by right-wing zealots for decades upon decades, will always feel self-deprecation and self-loathing. People pass this self-loathing on through the generations.

Now it has come time to stop the lies that create self-loathing Okies, and by "Okies" I mean the millions of people who live in Oklahoma and the Great Plains.

Woody Guthrie’s art and life make him an American icon and a specific Oklahoma treasure. His legacy has withstood decades of right-wing lies and hate because he was a true American moralist in the tradition of classic writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Ralph Ellison, another Oklahoma native. His influence and ideas will live on forever as the lies of the right-wing extremists wither and die on the vine.

Oklahoma's power structure has begun some tentative and long overdue recognition of Guthrie. Just recently, a new oil painting of Guthrie was hung at the Oklahoma Capitol, for example.

But the most positive sign that the state is reconsidering and reconfiguring its populist history is symbolized by the annual Woody Guthrie Festival held in Okemah each July. The festival gains in artistic and political significance as the years go on. The state’s conservatives (and maybe all the country’s right-wing zealots) must be scared as hell now that people are starting to pull together again under Guthrie’s historical and lasting moral influence.

Here’s what Woody once wrote about his hometown:

“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.”

That’s real Oklahoma history, not the right-wing’s homogenized, celebratory history of filthy rich oil company executives and immoral newspaper owners. Woody Guthriemakes me damn proud to be from Oklahoma.