Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot

Woody Guthrie
American Radical Patriot

In 2008, during a cross-country move from North Carolina to Nevada, I stopped for lunch in Okemah, Oklahoma, the hometown of Woody Guthrie. It was right off the interstate, but once you were off the main road, the town seemed its own world. Compact but complete, it had small roads spotted with houses, a main strip with banners hung on streetlights celebrating Guthrie (the only apparent nod to the folk singer I found on that quick trip), and a storefront downtown where I found a restaurant.

The restaurant was a big converted space – perhaps an old barn – and it was full up with people. If the streets seemed empty in town, it was because everyone seemed to have come to this place for lunch. Tables were full and people were talking up a loud hum of sound in that big space. I took up a small two-top table in the back of the room. Nearby, there was a small lunch counter off the kitchen. The sheriff sat there eating a sandwich and, more than once, if he needed something, he got up and walked into the kitchen and got it himself. I had my back to most of the room so I was surprised when a voice over a loudspeaker asked that we all stand for the pledge of allegiance.

As it turns out, I had walked into the Okemah Chamber of Commerce meeting. We were introduced to the Okemah High School students of the month. We were invited to an FFA supper. When people made announcements, they were introduced to speak by their first and last names, but the last names were tacked on for formality since clearly most people in the room knew them. At first, I felt like a trespasser, an outsider intruding on town business, but, as they moved the meeting along, anyone that looked my way didn’t scowl at the stranger, mostly they just went about their business the same as any other day.

It wasn’t that this was quaint, or rural, or some other condescending thing. It was that it seemed the genuine idea that was underneath every performative, useless meeting I’d ever been to. It was communal, straight-talking, informative. It was a meeting for people that didn’t want to waste time, that wanted to enjoy a nice lunch with their neighbors. As I filled up my gas tank and a cold February wind whipped across the flat land, it seemed exactly the kind of place and people that might shape a Woody Guthrie, or the kind that might be informed by his ethos, or both.

That visit comes to mind when hearing American Radical Patriot, the new box set of Woody Guthrie performances put together by Rounder Records. The set comprises the complete unabridged recordings Guthrie made with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. But it also contains the less well known but fascinating songs he recorded for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), songs and skits he made for to support the war effort, and a series of songs he recorded for the US Public Health Service to raise awareness of venereal diseases. The set also includes a DVD of a documentary, Roll On Columbia, that expounds on Guthrie’s work with the BPA, and a 78rm record with Bob Dylan performing “VD Blues” on one side and Guthrie on the other. It a massive set that comes with a book’s worth of essays and background, unreleased drawings by Guthrie, and many other little gems.

Photo: Al Aumuller. Courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

It’s also a set that complicates the myth of Woody Guthrie. For one, much of this recording was done for the US Government, which in and of itself seems odd for a songwriter seen historically as so radical. But this set does something remarkable in juxtaposing these commissioned songs with his more rambling recordings with Alan Lomax. It shows us not the true Guthrie (in the Lomax recordings) and the Guthrie doing what he can to make some money (for the government), but a man who clearly understood and was fascinated by the works of man, by the force of labor, and by what little returns that labor was compensated. He was a man as eager to tell the story of his people and his land as he was eager to be a part of historically great projects. He was a true artist and, in the end, a man who was sold by RCA records and the BPA and others because his radical streak fit a narrative they needed it to. He wasn’t used. He didn’t compromise. But those he worked for got what they wanted. In that way he was an American Radical Patriot. But he was also all three, sometimes moving from one to the other or bleeding them together. American. Radical. Patriot.

The seeds of these greater things, and his true strength as a songwriter, storyteller, and charming personality, come through in the Lomax recordings here. Put together in their entirety over four discs, these sets feel less like performances and more like conversations between Lomax and Guthrie. In them, we learn hardships large and small. We hear about the plight of the Dust Bowl Refugee trying to make his way to and in California, and the oft dashed hopes that he encountered once he got there. We hear about the shoddy houses left behind to blow away in dust storms by oil companies come to sap West Texas land of crude. But we also hear of Guthrie’s won tragedies. Of his father building a house in Okemah, a big one he sunk a lot of money into, that then burned down just days after he finished building it. Guthrie’s sister caught fire doing chores and died. His mother, affected by the loss and afflicted with Huntington’s (the same disease that would later kill Guthrie), died soon thereafter. And his father, consumed perhaps by all this loss, caught fire as well and some, including Woody Guthrie, imagined he had done so on purpose.

Guthrie tells these stories with measured calm, his quiet pauses reflecting the sadness under the surface more than his easy words do. He also tells of friends killed by trains and other tragedies, but the more you hear them the more he states them as plain fact, as everyday occurrences. For Woody and his people this kind of unspeakable loss was – to hear Guthrie tell it here – just like what came before, what to expect. It was the same come down. That background informs the vital energy with which he plays everything on these recordings, from traditional tunes like “Rye Whiskey” and his versions of “Greenback Dollar” and “Boll Weevil” to his turn on the old jail tune “The Midnight Special”.

The first disc, and first hour of the recordings, finds Guthrie moving through these tunes of the past, both his past and music’s past. It’s an important step here to move from the old dancehall rags to his own songs on disc two, many of which recount life in the dust bowl (“Talking Dust Bowl”), displacement of people (“Dirty Overhauls”), the tough road for migrants arriving in California, and people done in by the ways of rich bankers (“Jolly Banker” and “I Ain’t Got No Home”). Over the next few discs, he mixes his own songs with those from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and others. He doesn’t align himself with them so much as reveal his musical vocabulary, the songs that sound like home to him. That we move, in an ambling way, from past tunes to hard-times tunes to rambling tunes seems less planned than inevitable, driven by the conversation between these two men.

Photo: Lester Balog. Courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications.

Lomax, a crucial figure to the preservation of so much folk music of all kinds, is a curious foil to Guthrie in these recordings. As he asks Guthrie about life in a poor Midwest town, he admits “I wasn’t brought up that way” and that he grew up in a brick house in Virginia to which Guthrie quickly replies, “So you picked up where we left off.” Guthrie is aware of the class difference between him and Lomax, but it doesn’t make their relationship adversarial. Instead, it’s merely a conversation between one man (Lomax) who knows a lot about folk music and another (Guthrie) who feels it in his bones. And while Lomax, and his wife on the final recordings here, ask the questions, it is Guthrie who comes off as professorial, his mind drifting but always on point. It a full picture of a man and his story. But it’s also a mix of artifice and honesty, not that the two are mutually exclusive. Guthrie had come to stay with Lomax at his house for a while before they recorded, and yet the tone on these recordings were of two people who had just met, who were learning each other as they went along. You can feel Lomax steering Guthrie towards certain songs, and you can feel Guthrie going along. It is first and foremost a conversation, yes, but there are still elements of performance, of persona standing in for person if only to enhance our understanding of that person.

Those recordings, though, do not really fit the popular reading of the radical Woody Guthrie. In fact, it’s his records for RCA that contain his more political songs. This wasn’t him pushing against the system either. In the wake of the popularity of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 and the film version Woody was nearly a bit part in, the record company wanted to cash in on the book’s sentiment and used Woody’s recordings to do that. And so it’s Woody Guthrie’s commercial recordings, and not his more personal one-on-one work with Lomax, that end up barking the loudest.

They also would seem to clash with Guthrie’s involvement with the BPA. Guthrie got involved to raise support and labor for the building of projects like the Grand Coulee Dam and to support the already built Bonneville Dam, both on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The idea of these projects, begun by FDR and the New Deal, was to provide public, cheap water and electricity to parts of the country that didn’t have it yet. This was an idea opposed by and fought by the private power companies. They even tried to declare much of these projects unconstitutional. But Guthrie was hired by the BPA to write rousing songs for the “common man”. And if that sounds condescending, Guthrie’s songs are anything but. His love in these songs is for the power of two things: men who labor and the Columbia River itself. The first of the songs presented here, “Pastures of Plenty”, sounds like just a murky old recording. As you press through it, though, and an atmospheric hiss overtakes Guthrie’s voice and guitar, it sounds at first like the miasmic dread of a dust storm. But then it changes, and it sounds more like powerful, rushing water, like the Columbia, like hope for the future.

Photo: Robin Carson. Courtesy of Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

His belief in men, in what they could do for this project and what the project could do for them is all over these songs. They simultaneously celebrate hard work and the link between people and the land (see “Pastures of Plenty”), but it also taps into the everyday worries of the poor people that would build these dams and the people that would benefit from them (“It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song”). The songs are understanding of a plight but also are stunning, clear-eyed calls to action. But if these benefitted the government, or the companies involved, Guthrie seems uninterested in that part of the bargain. It’s easy on the surface to see this as a government project taking advantage of a man’s credibility, but it speaks more to Guthrie’s belief in this project, perhaps not in what government can do but what some worthwhile projects overseen by a government could give to the people that didn’t have the money to work through private channels.

His war effort and VD awareness songs and skits continue this complicated view. The war effort skits, in which Guthrie plays while voice actors portray legends of labor like Paul Bunyan and John Henry, again call on that power of the worker, but in this case to stop Hitler and fascism. They’re clearly commercial pieces, though his songs are plainspoken in their desire to defeat Hitler and further establish democracy, but if they play as a bit goofy, as much as entertainment as call to action, then that speaks more to Guthrie’s charm and poetry than anything. Even the VD tunes, which are quick tossed-off numbers, some just derivations of pre-existing tunes (“TB Blues” gets reworked to “VD Blues”), it’s still Guthrie doing for what he sees as his fellow man, trading with a government organization to do so. Guthrie is, from the BPA to the Public Health Service, trying to do what he thinks is right, and if that means getting involved with a government that doesn’t always do right (the criticisms do leak out at times in these recordings, make no mistake), then that’s what he would do.

Because what this also is, this American Radical Patriot, is the sound of a man turning his trade into a job. A man working the best way he knows how for a greater good. These were paying jobs for a man with a family to support, and if he never quite got comfortable making money from his trade, he at least didn’t trade in his ideals to do so. This box set is the most complex and perhaps enduring image of Woody Guthrie. The content itself – especially the VD songs and the war skits – may not be arresting from moment to moment in their own right, but each piece presents a curious new angle on a man that seems often like such a clear image of the link between community and land, the link between hard work and humanity. He is that image, but that image has a good many layers to it, layers Lomax couldn’t fully answer despite all his questions, and layers we’re still unraveling today. He’s exactly the kind of man that would have shown up to that Chamber of Commerce meeting, stood to salute the flag, stated his business and ate with his neighbors. He was that man, and he was the myth we made him into. This box set illuminates the complicated, tangled bits of history and ideology and personality that connect that man to that myth. Those threads are frayed, tough to follow at times, but strong.

RATING 9 / 10