BY // AZA EVANS-TOWNSEND
This script is originally from Aza’s show, Upward. Listen in on Thursdays from 5-6 pm EST on gwradio.com.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Woody Guthrie would become one of the most significant figures in American folk music. His songs, notably “This Land is Your Land”, inspire people both musically and politically. He is known for his guitar, on which he inscribed “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
His childhood in Oklahoma was not easy. His father, Charles, was destroyed by the country’s economic turmoil; it is also known he had ties with the KKK. Woody’s sister Clara died in a fire at a young age, and his mentally ill mother Nora would be institutionalized after setting her sleeping husband on fire (some claim she was responsible for the fire that killed her daughter Clara). His mother passed away when Guthrie was 14, and in an attempt to pay off his debt, Charles decided he and Woody would move to Texas.
Guthrie started to learn folk and blues in his teenage years. He got married when he was 19 to Mary Jennings, with whom he had three kids. He remarried and divorced two more times, ending up with eight kids. He has been described as an absent father, as he was largely on the road and didn’t let his family tie him down.
Guthrie was living in the 1930s depression and the time of the Dust Bowl – a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies. Like many others displaced during this time, Woody headed to California. The exact number of Dust Bowl refugees remains a matter of debate, but some estimate there were as many as 400,000 individuals displaced. People took the old US Highway 66, packing themselves into beat-up old cars (called jalopies) with whatever possessions they could fit. As the number of migrants grew, there were efforts to prevent more people from crossing the western borders. Many who couldn’t prove they had sufficient funds to be self-supportive were turned away. Those who did get across traveled between farm fields trying to get work, and were treated and referred to as “dirty” and “ignorant”. Some Californians even complained that the camps set up by the government to house refugees were a health threat. One camp, with around 1,500 people, was burnt down.
Guthrie wrote many songs about the Dust Bowl and the displacement of people caused by it. One song called “Do Re Mi” focuses on the problems faced by migrants at this time. Another called, “Dust Bowl Refugee” in which he says “We ramble and we roam, and the highway that’s our home.”
His time in California was marked by a growing reputation and a radio show on which he sang hillbilly songs, with his co-host Maxine Crissman, nicknamed Lefty Lou. His radio show eventually got banned as it promoted communist ideals, so he moved to New York City.
In New York, he hosted a radio show where he discussed the music of the South, and then performed some classic folk songs. This is where he met Pete Seeger – who was hired to join his performances on multiple occasions. Guthrie was so impressed with Seeger he decided to become a mentor to him, and they became good friends.
One interesting detail about Guthrie’s time in New York is that in 1950, Woody Guthrie signed a lease for an apartment in Brooklyn; his landlord was Fred C. Trump, Former President Donald J. Trump’s father. This is known because Guthrie wrote a song called “Old Man Trump” in which he discussed Fred Trump’s racist nature. He also reworked an old song he wrote called “Ain’t Got No Home” to be about the moral struggle of living in an affordable housing complex where black citizens aren’t allowed. Fred Trump had many informal and formal accusations of racism, reaching their peak in the 1970s when the US Department of Justice brought a claim against Trump and his son, Donald, for racist housing practices. However, Fred Trump wasn’t acting on his own when he refused to rent property to people of color. In the 1950s, the FHA had a set of guidelines for avoiding “inharmonious uses of housing”, used to justify denying black Americans homes in white neighborhoods. While Woody wrote the lyrics, it was sung by multiple different artists.
After New York, Guthrie took off again. Hitching and performing around the country until he was invited by Seeger to join a band he was forming called “The Almanac Singers”. He agreed, and the band created songs with a message of freedom and justice. They were anti-war, anti-racist, and pro-union. Unfortunately, it disbanded after a few years of performing, and Seeger and some others formed a new band called “The Weavers”, without Guthrie. Around this time, WWII was taking place, Guthrie joined and served in the US Army and did three tours with the Merchant Marines, twice getting torpedoed while in active service, although he never saw combat himself. He also wrote hundreds of anti-Hitler wartime songs, one of the most famous being “Tear the Fascists Down” with a clear, simple message about the need for unity.
The rest of Guthrie’s life was quite tragic. One of his daughters died in a fire, like his own sister. He got divorced from his second wife, then his third, and his genetic Huntington’s disease led to his final years being spent in a hospital. However, he was supported by his family and visited by his friends like Pete Seeger. Many artists look up to Guthrie, Bob Dylan even visited him in the hospital, but there are many other artists who have cited him as an inspiration. Notably Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Joe Strummer.
As mentioned, Pete Seeger was a friend and mentee of Guthrie. However, Seeger’s career stands on its own and was integral in folk music’s history.
In the 1940s, when he co-founded The Weavers, they surprised everyone by becoming the first group to bring folk music to the pop charts. Ultimately, the band became blacklisted.
Like Guthrie, Seeger painted a message around the rim of his instrument of choice, the banjo. It read: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger kept this message while he played with Guthrie, during the Civil Rights and anti-war organizing protests of the 50s and 60s, and all the way into the 21st century at Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan in 2011.
He spent part of his life writing and collecting labor union protest songs, one of the most famous was “Which Side Are You On?”. The song was originally written by a woman named Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer involved in the Harlan County War.
The Harlan County War was a series of mining-related incidents in Kentucky in the 1930s, involving executions, bombings, and strikes as the coal miners and union organizers demanded better wages and working conditions. It lasted nearly a decade, and before it ended, many were killed. Seeger learned the song in 1940 and recorded it with the Almanac Singers. Their version was able to attract a much wider audience, and while Florence Reece did eventually record a version in the 2010s, Seeger’s version is known widely, and the combination of voices of the Almanac Singers makes the song feel especially powerful.
A similar song I recommend is “Solidarity Forever.” Historically used as a song at miners’ strikes, it continues to be a song of importance in moments of protest.
One of Seeger’s songs, “Deportees”, which was written by Guthrie, focuses on a tragic plane crash in 1948 which killed 28 illegal immigrants. It was one of the more solemn songs that Guthrie wrote, and the lyrics talk about the attitudes towards them and the fact that in the reporting of the story the individuals were left nameless, only being referred to as “Deportees”.
The last song I want to mention, “John Brown’s Body”, is one of Pete Seeger’s most famous covers. The origins of the lyrics are complicated. Many have claimed credit for different verses but the song is a US marching song about the abolitionist John Brown and was popular amongst the Union during the American Civil War.
The tune is said to have come from an American camp meeting, religious meetings in which folk hymns were sung. According to an 1889 account, some union soldiers wrote the lyrics, referring both to the famous John Brown and as a joke, their Sergeant who was named John Brown.
I highly recommend going through both Guthrie and Seeger’s discography. These artists carry so much history, and I have only touched the surface of the era they represent.