“Crumbs on the Trail”: A Conversation with Nora Guthrie About Her Father, Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie
American Radical Patriot

I grew up thinking that Woody Guthrie was a hero. He was an anti-fascist activist, a vocal supporter of labor unions, a champion of the underclasses across America (and beyond). As a Canadian kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Woody Guthrie spoke to me of a different time, a pre-modern America in which a wandering man with a beat up guitar could ramble around the dusty country, writing and singing songs so authentically true to life that they’d bleed real blood if you could cut into them. He basically embodied the mythical America that we’d imagined, many of us, in our most fantastic dreams of what that troubled country could be, and maybe even was, in days gone by.

This legendary image of Woody Guthrie is enormous, powerful, and indelible, and it is perhaps the most influential in the continuing history of rock’n’roll. Idolized by latter day political musicians like Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bragg, and celebrated at every turn as the genuine article, among the only truly “authentic” musicians to make their mark, Guthrie’s rambling people’s poet mythology is simply unavoidable.

And this is why we might be surprised to discover that, not only was Guthrie not actively opposed to the US government (as one might simplistically suspect of a left-leaning protest singer), but he actually spent considerable time working for the government. Indeed, that’s what is chronicled here on this exhaustive, and utterly indispensable, boxed set. Featuring six discs of music, a rather epic coffee table book filled with fascinating insight, a DVD featuring a documentary film about one of the public works projects he supported, and a 78-inch LP, here is the entirety of Guthrie’s output while under the employ of the United States government.

Combining songs written to celebrate the building of Oregon’s Bonneville Dam, to rally support for the war effort, and to raise awareness about the scourge of venereal disease, the set explores Guthrie as an “American Radical Patriot”, a man who understood that his government could be a very positive force in the lives of his fellow citizens.

That he wrote this material while in the employ of a government with which he was sometimes at odds may fit uncomfortably with the legend but, as I found out while talking to his daughter, Nora Guthrie (head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation), it fits perfectly with the man himself.

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This was a real eye-opener for me. It features so much material that I’d never encountered in years of listening to the standard Woody Guthrie repertoire.

I’ve been influenced by all of my years of being close to the archivists. With all of these scholars that’ve come by [the Woody Guthrie Foundation] over the past 20 years, I began to see from their perspective. What they’re looking for, what they’re interested in. What’s meaningful, what’s not. Because there’s two things with Woody. There is the fanbase — you know, musicians and people like that — and there’s the researchers. And I think that over the years my closeness with researchers has influenced what we’ve put out. So there’s always some level of scholarship to [what we release].

How so?

We put all of the notes in because I realize that so many researchers use this material. It’s like leaving crumbs on the trail, to help lead their way through this massive story that is Woody Guthrie. That’s why I wanted to do this particular collection — from a scholarship point of view, I hadn’t seen anyone really focus on the topic of Woody’s relationship to the government. You know, what was it? If you’re on the left you like that he was singing for the Communist Party, if you’re on the right you like the fact that he sang about the mountains and the ranges, you know? [laughs] But my thing wasn’t to explain [his work with the government], but just present it. So that down the road people could have use of the material for whatever argument they choose to make.

The title of the boxed set is American Radical Patriot. This feels like a provocative way of troubling our impression of Woody as a straightforward activist.

Well, so many of our greatest patriots were radicals. And so many of our radicals were not … but I think it’s up to the future, you know? The next generation of scholars. My generation — I’m 60-something — and my generation really approached Woody from a music point of view, albeit from a progressive political stance as well. But, really, the first thing everybody knows about Woody is like “Oh yeah, Bob Dylan.” You know? That side of the musical legacy looms … the protest music, etc. People like Pete Seeger really carried the torch for that, for so many years. But it’s always been amazing to me that no one ever really made the argument for how much Woody did with the government.

Is it possibly that this side of the story is inconvenient for those on the left who tend to celebrate Woody as a thorn in the side of government?

I don’t think so. I don’t think that that’s really the reason. I think no one ever made a strong case. I think no one ever thought of it, actually! Like most of Woody’s stuff, to be perfectly honest. I think most people don’t really think of these things. We’re all in the habit of seeing our icons in a certain light.

I did the same thing with Woody’s Jewish material. Woody wrote hundreds of songs on Jewish topics. From how to cook blintzes to Jewish holidays, Hanukah songs, Jewish history … all kinds of stuff on Judaism. I like to serve up an appetizer. So that down the road if someone really wants to research, here’s the start. So, I was able to record two CDs of Woody’s Jewish songs with the Klezmatics [a New York-based Klezmer band]. And it gave me a jumping-off board so I could say, “Let’s talk about Woody and religion.” People always have these anecdotes — “Oh, someone, or Pete Seeger, told me this,” or whatever, and it’s all very much like playing telephone — but we have all this stuff in the archives! We know exactly what Woody said and thought about all of these topics. Whether it was working with and for the government, or spirituality and religion, it no longer has to be chatter. It can be evidence.

Part of the project, then, is about complicating the simple ideas we have about Woody Guthrie?

I wanted to put in one place Woody’s positive feelings about working with the government, and what that means as a citizen. Not as a songwriter, but as a citizen. When there are times when you agree with what the government is doing, sing about it. Talk about it, whatever. Sometimes we get into the habit of criticizing. And staying in that place. I think that Woody was more of a positive person than that. He absolutely heralded all of the work that he did with the government, whether it was the Bonneville Dam or the war songs, and things like that. He heralded these positions that the government took. Now, he might have been wrong! I’m not making that case. I’m just saying: “This is what he said, and this is what he wrote. You can figure it out.” [laughs]

You used the word iconic a few minutes ago. You know that famous line from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence?: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” People like the chatter, don’t they? We like passing around myths and legends.

We do that to everybody! Not just Woody. Like, does anyone really want to know how much Marilyn Monroe liked to read books? [laughs] But that’s what I mean. I try to create projects that are just as fun and interesting for the general public as for the fanbase. But, also, it has to have a level of truth to it. So, what I try to do is mix those two together. So that you might not even notice that you’re getting information. It’s just so much fun to eat. My joke is: I always try to put out a project that would surprise my brother and Pete Seeger. [laughs] Material that even they don’t know.

One of the more amazing things about this boxed set is that it contains the material Woody write while working on behalf of the Bonneville Dam. That, in the space of 30 days, he wrote all 26 of these songs.

Well, if you know a lot about Woody’s writing skills, he actually could write four or five songs a day. And he often did, when he was home. He would sit down and … he said his work load was three to five songs a day. He was a very easy writer. However you want to put it, it was very easy for him to write songs. He didn’t struggle with it. And, even when you look at his original lyrics, there’s very, very, very few cross-outs.

He writes about this in his diaries and notebooks: he would work out all the words for his songs in his head. Before he’d put them down on paper. That was his process of writing. First he’d come up with a title, and the title would tell him what the words were. And once he’s worked it all out, with the chorus and everything, in his head, which sometimes could take him a day, or it might take him six months, then he’d put the words down. But, often he could just do three to five songs in a day. So, the reason he only wrote one a day when he was doing the Bonneville stuff was that he was in the car all day, kind of “sightseeing”. He was just taking it all in. And when he’d come home at the end of the day, he’d come home to the little house they put him up in, and he’d sit down at the typewriter and write all night.

On the DVD that accompanies this set, your brother Arlo [Guthrie, folksinger] says, about all of that feverish writing: “You gotta have discipline or you gotta be crazy, and Woody was both.”

Yeah. Well, he was an obsessive writer. When you look through the archives you see it. Sometimes it’s artwork, lyrics, letters, essays, articles, or short stories and they’re all dated the same day! And you’re just like: “Oh my god, there’s like 10 songs that he wrote on November 26th!”

What drives a man to write like that?

Well, who knows? I’ll give you the simple answer that I remember my Mother said. “He loved the feeling of the pencil and paper. He loved the act of writing.” That’s the simple answer, and it’s kind of cute. The deeper answer is that he was born to write. He was a born writer. When you look at the lyrics, when you look at the stories, they just poured out. When you look at the original lyric of “This Land is Your Land” there’s one word crossed out. In the whole lyric. It used be “from California to Staten Island” and he changed it to “New York Island” because he thought it sounded better. That’s the only change in six verses. He just wrote it! He was born to write. He just couldn’t turn off the spout.