Any examination of the Depression era in the United States would be sadly incomplete without mention of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. More than any other individual, he wrote the musical score for the 1930s.
Woody, as he became known to multiple generations, entered life on July 14, 1912 the son of Charles Edward and Nora Belle Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma. At age seventeen, the young man and his father relocated to Pampa in the Texas Panhandle after Nora Belle had to be committed to a mental institution. Over the next eight years Woody worked odd jobs to support his passion - playing guitar and singing in various beer joints and on numerous radio station across the Panhandle.
He witnessed the worst of the Depression during these years in Pampa. Money was scarce and the region's agricultural and ranching economy lay devastated even before the start of the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. Farmers and ranchers had abused the region's soil for decades. Native grasses, which had for millennia held the soil in place despite the ever-present winds which characterized the Great Plains, had either been overgrazed by cattle or plowed up by wheat farmers. Then an extended drought beset this normally arid land throughout the early and mid-1930s. Coupled with the wind and the abusive practices of preceding years, the drought transformed hundreds upon hundreds of square miles of the Plains into a howling, blowing bowl of dust. Wind lifted untold tons of soil into the sky. Massive black clouds of dust from which there was no escape swept across the flatlands month after month, year after year. One such storm on April 14, 1935 convinced some Pampa residents that the end of the world was had come.
Guthrie not only endured these tragic events; he absorbed them. The Dust Bowl experience with its accompanying displacement and migration of Oakies, Arkies, and Texans to California became grist for his songwriting talents. Unlike other Exodusters who became migrant farm workers up and down the West Coast, Woody left Pampa for Los Angeles in 1937 to sing on radio station KFVD. It was here that he became the "people's troubadour," writing and singing about the trials of the common man, the greed of the rich and the powerful, and the quest for justice by tens of millions of Americans.
The lure of New York City, the nation's musical capital, proved irresistible by 1940. Once there, Guthrie came to the attention of Allan Lomax, a collector of American folk music for the Library of Congress. Woody's music so impressed Lomax that he secured a recording session for Guthrie with Victor Records. The gravel-voiced poet recorded fourteen songs at Victor's Camden, New Jersey studios on May 3, 1940. The collection, issued as Dust Bowl Ballads, was disappointing from a commercial perspective. This, however, resulted far more from poor marketing by Victor than from the music itself. Indeed, the music drew rave reviews from critics and marked Guthrie as one of the nation's most perceptive social commentators. "The Great Dust Storm," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Dust Can't Kill Me," and "Dust Pneumonia Blues" gave expression to the ecological nightmare which had finally drawn to a close out on the Great Plains. "So Long It's Been Good To Know Yuh," "Blowin' Down The Road," "Tom Joad," "I Ain't Got No Home," and "Dust Bowl Refugee" told the stories of the Exodusters. Woody also reminded listeners that in the United States you were nothing without money or, as he put it, that ol' "Do Re Mi." Perhaps his most barbed but insightful observation came in "Pretty Boy Floyd":
"Now as through this world I ramble, I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.
But as through this life you travel and as through this life you roam
You will never see an outlaw drive a family from its home."
If Dust Bowl Ballads painted a gritty gray picture of suffering and despair, his other major Depression era offering - The Columbia River Collection - put forward the promise of hope and progress even during these hardest of times.
Woody, an inveterate wanderer, never needed much of an excuse to take to the road. Cinematographer Gunther Von Fritsch provided more than enough in early 1941 when he approached the singer with the possibility of appearing in a documentary film on the Bonneville Power Project, an undertaking modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority. While the proposed project was tentative and without guarantee of any kind whatsoever, Woody packed up his family and drove cross-country to Portland, Oregon. Though Von Fritsch had established his credentials with an earlier documentary entitled Hydro, this project - and Woody's supposed role - never materialized. The filmmaker, however, used his friendship with BPA director Paul Raver to secure Woody a thirty-day job as a "temporary laborer." Perhaps the paycheck of just over $250 would help the perpetually cash-strapped artist to his feet.
Guthrie labored not by pouring concrete at one of the multiple dams designed to tame and harness the Columbia River's power but by writing songs. He traveled from construction site to construction site in a BPA automobile, visiting with workers and penning lyrics that praised the project's promise of delivering cheap water and electricity throughout the region. Songs such as "Roll On, Columbia," "Columbia's Waters," "Grand Coulee Dam," and "Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done" described the mighty river's beauty and the magnitude of the engineering effort. The visual images and perfect verse of these hastily written works is striking. Consider for instance these lines from "The Grand Coulee Dam":
"She heads down the granite canyon and she bends across the lea
Like a dancing, prancing stallion down her seaway to the sea;
Cast your eye upon the greatest thing yet built by human hands,
On the King Columbia River, it's the big Grand Coulee dam.
In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave.
Well, she tore their boats to splinters, but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee dam would cross that wild and wasted stream."
Nor did Woody forget about the migrant farmworkers who were never very far from his heart. "Pastures of Plenty" detailed in rhyme their contribution not just in the Pacific Northwest but across the entire country. Theirs had been and continued to be a hard lot:
"I've worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
Slept on the ground in the light of the moon,
On the edge of your city you've seen us and then,
We come with the dust and we go with the wind."
It was a phenomenal thirty-day period from which the nation certainly got its money's worth. Remarkably, The Columbia River Collection numbers twenty-six compositions. It was, says Guthrie biographer Joe Klein, "the most productive month of his life." Some of these pieces became landmarks in American music history, others not; but each gave musical expression to slices of the Depression experience for generations to come.
Woody Guthrie lived for another twenty-five years and his songwriting credits, in addition to the pieces already cited, include: "Going Down The Road (I Ain't Going To Be Treated This Way," "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," "Hard Traveling," "Union Maid," "Oklahoma Hills," and "The Philadelphia Lawyer." His most famous composition was of course "This Land Is Your Land," which has all but become the common people's national anthem. One can only wonder what additional gems there might have been had his career not been cut short by the onset of Huntington's Chorea in the 1950s. A friend and contemporary of such prominent folk figures as Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Cisco Houston, he inspired and took on almost god-like stature for a new generation of singer/songwriters including Rambling Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.
Author and kindred spirit John Steinbeck aptly described Guthrie many
years ago and nobody has seemed to capture the man in words more completely.
That description seems a fitting conclusion. "Woody is just Woody. Thousands
of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar.
He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that
people. Harsh voice and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a
rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet
about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those
who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against
oppression. I think we call this the American spirit."
"Pretty Boy Floyd," (c) 1961 by Fall River Music, Inc.
"The Grand Coulee Dam," (c) 1958, 1963, 1976 by Ludlow Music, Inc.
"Pastures of Plenty," (c) 1960, 1963 by Ludlow Music, Inc.