A California Commonist

By Josh Garrett-DavisFebruary 22, 2016

Woody Guthrie L.A. by William Deverell and Darryl Holter

WOODY GUTHRIE went viral recently. It turns out that around 1951, he wrote some verses decrying the way “Old Man Trump,” the rich daddy of a leading candidate in the 2016 presidential elections, stirred “Racial Hate … in the bloodpot of human hearts” by drawing a “color line” as landlord of the huge, publicly funded Beach Haven apartment complex in Brooklyn. The story confirms what we Woody fans know about our beloved hardscrabble babbler: that he brought a democratic Okie voice, racial egalitarianism, and Whitmanesque wordsmithery to New York City and its folk scene. His politics are preternaturally relevant to our own moment, parallel to those of, say, Elizabeth Warren, his fellow Okie. He was an adaptive, adaptable genius, and he contains multitudes.

A few years back I decamped from Brooklyn, and now have landed — cliché after cliché — in Los Angeles. I’m taking on a different lens here, through which New York City is not the undisputed center of Earth. And now along comes an edited volume of essays, Woody Guthrie L.A., that collectively argues, as historian Peter La Chapelle puts it in his contribution, “that Los Angeles, not New York, served as the locus of Woody’s political transformation, and that it was in Southern California that he really began to blend the folk and commercial music-making traditions of his home region with the kind of politics that he would eventually be associated with.”

Here is a slightly different present-day adaptation of Woody, a prophet for a time when TV shows are as literary as the stuff New York publishers print, when Pope Francis has Lazarused the social gospel, when debt peonage and drought are surging, when “refugee” is a trending search term. And the thesis is right: Woody became Woody in and around (and rambling away from and back to) Los Angeles, between 1937 and 1941, when he was in his mid- to late twenties. The lack of emphasis by earlier biographers reflects the fact that relatively little of Guthrie’s writing and music survives from this time, though persistent digging by enthusiasts and scholars has recently yielded more.

Woody’s transformation depended on unique features of Depression-era LA, and the book sheds some beams of sunshine on the region where he sojourned at a perfect moment, the region he departed from just as his best-known creative output piled up on scraps of paper and acetate.

The California change was stark. Woody Guthrie arrived at his aunt’s house in Glendale as a redneck class clown, a talented yarn spinner with loose Southern Democrat politics and evangelical faith. He left expressing such sentiments as “To own everything in common. That’s what the Bible says. Common means all of us. This is old ‘Commonism.’”

One of the important additions Woody Guthrie L.A. makes to the classic Woody Guthrie biography is a grappling, in a couple of chapters, with Woody’s initial embrace of white supremacy. Beyond noting papa Charley Guthrie’s probable guilt in a 1911 lynching, the book reproduces some appalling poetry Woody himself wrote after an encounter with some African American beachgoers in Santa Monica, probably in 1937. Woody imagined the black folks “doing a cannibal dance” and concluded:

Guess the sea’s eternal pounding
Like a Giant drum a sounding
Set their jungle blood to bounding
Set their native instincts free.

The racist notions he inherited in white Oklahoma did not slough off in Okemah or in Pampa, Texas. (These hateful feelings persist semi-freely today in parts of his home state, as demonstrated by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon lynching chant revealed at the University of Oklahoma last year.) No, Guthrie repudiated white supremacy in California, where Southern blacks as well as whites had migrated, and where the Mexican borderland and Pacific Rim brought together people from a broad mix of backgrounds.

Dan Cady and Douglas Flamming present Woody’s racial conversion as an instant metamorphosis from sinner to saint. In October 1937, a black college student, Howell Terence, wrote Guthrie to say he “deeply resented” Woody’s performance of “Nigger Blues” over the air on the Woody and Lefty Lou show (with his fellow singer Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman) on KFVD. Terence informed the singer that “No person, or person of any intelligence, uses that word over the air today.” A news announcer had been fired from another station a year earlier, he warned — public mores, Terence informed Woody, were different in California than Oklahoma or Texas. Woody immediately apologized on air, and subsequently incorporated racial equality into the leftist political ideas he was beginning to discover in Depression-era LA.

Some of the most surprising and fruitful parts of Woody Guthrie L.A. are those that stretch beyond Woody’s personal artistic and political evolution to consider the city more broadly. After all, Woody was brilliant, but the whole point of his persona was to dismantle any cult around his brilliance. Common means all of us.

In an essay on Christianity in LA, Philip Goff reveals the way New Thought ideas of “harmonial” positive thinking had already enchanted South Plains families, including the Guthries, before they trundled to this crystal coast. Woody had operated a “Faith Healing, Mind Reading” enterprise in Texas in 1935. Forerunners of National Treasure, Dianetics, and The Da Vinci Code intermingled with tent-revival Protestantism in ways that produced not only Woody’s carpenter-martyr Christ (set to the tune of “Jesse James”) but also the radio evangelicalism that has become a stronger cultural force in the United States than Commonism ever was.

Other chapters, including a 1979 memoir by Ed Robbin, the KFVD newscaster who pulled Woody into the world to the left of FDR, offer a picture of California socialism and bohemianism in the 1930s and ’40s. A network of artists, intellectuals, and activists combined trade unionism, proto-LGBT advocacy, and art to link longshoremen with Hollywood actors. Woody Guthrie became close friends with the actor Will Geer, and an acquaintance of Geer’s former lover Harry Hay. Hay would go on to help found the “homophile” movement in the ’50s and the “Radical Faeries” in the ’70s, and he preserved the earliest known recordings by Woody Guthrie, rediscovered by Peter La Chapelle in 1999. It is easy to trace the influence of materialist thought into Woody’s songs, cartoons, and newspaper columns after 1939. Also remarkable is the fragrant eroticism, like this later prose: “If there is a prettier sight on earth than those patched hairs between your legs, I’ve never seen or heard about it. If there’s a prettier sight than this long and viney root that stands up here between my legs, I’ve certainly never seen that.” His immersion in a western bohemia, as a complement to the Okie refugees he first entertained on Woody and Lefty Lou, transformed him markedly.

The slapdash cookery that Woody used to stir together these far-flung cultural and political ingredients, and in such a funny and unpretentious voice, was ultimately magic. But one precedent he looked to was the Okie comedian Will Rogers. He said the two men he most admired were Rogers and Jesus Christ. Rogers, who died in a plane crash before Guthrie followed in his Oklahoma-to-California footsteps, is not celebrated often enough as a political poet like Woody. In addition to boosting New Deal populism, he reminded mainstream Americans about American Indian cultural politics in an era when Native people had little political power, as detailed by Amy M. Ware in her recent history, The Cherokee Kid. Rogers needled WASP dominance with quips like “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” Inspired by Rogers, Woody Guthrie always punctured his political and intellectual acuity with a sharp aw shucks — writing, for instance, in the People’s Daily Worker in 1939 about his Marxian study sessions that he was “buried about 6 foot deep in some dialecticle matternilisation, an it was speakin a bout what was real, an what was just pure old imaginin.”

A crucial essay by Josh Kun, “Woody at the Border,” takes Guthrie’s Commonism seriously and asks us to listen beyond Woody himself to parts of the Angeleno cultural landscape that the hero mostly missed. Kun highlights the record “El Deportado” (1930), a ballad by the Los Angeles duo Los Hermanos Bañuelos that documented the way Mexican-American “women, children, and elders are being driven to the border” in the huge wave of deportations (including many U.S. citizens) that accompanied the Depression. Though Woody did spend three weeks in 1937 performing on the border-blaster Radio XELO in Tijuana, his awareness of the Southwest as a historical and cultural part of Latin America remained limited, although he later wrote sympathetically of the plane wreck of braceros at Los Gatos.

Left out of Woody Guthrie L.A., except in a couple of appropriately critical paragraphs, are those Angelenos closest to Woody, his first wife and two children, whom he alternately dragged around and abandoned as he rambled. The fact that this volume has only one female contributor raises questions about what we’re celebrating when we celebrate Woody, and about the possible overinflation of him as a “lone wolf” (a radio nickname) and genius artist. Is this a music-history parallel of the presidential biography industry, brought to you by a bunch of cool dads? The comedian Sarah Silverman recently commented on why she chose her career over having children: “You can’t have it all; you really can’t, unless you’re a ‘fun dad.’ I can be a fun dad, I feel totally prepared for that. But I don’t have the lifestyle conducive to having kids the way that I would want to have kids.” Woody Guthrie was the epitome of a fun dad — coining great nicknames and writing silly-billy songs until he decided to carouse on Skid Row for a few days or tour for a few months. The damage this did, and the paradox of his generosity and selfishness, goes mostly unmentioned, other than a passing reference to the tragic death of a child he later fathered extramaritally.

Otherwise, this is a fine book on a fun bard. And yet rather than simply feeling warm about how lovely Woody was and how rad LA is, I finish with the unsettling sense that the city failed him. Literally, he couldn’t make a living here by the end. More broadly, I wonder how viable his recipe for Commonist Cornpone was and is. In a late chapter, Bryant Simon and William Deverell trace the legacy of John Steinbeck’s protagonist Tom Joad, trying to rescue the earnest Okie progressive from nostalgia and political amnesia. The exiled “Arkies, an th Oakies, th Kansies, an th Texies, an-all of the farmers an workers,” as Woody classified them, took a variety of paths after weathering the Depression. But where Simon and Deverell trace Joad through Woody’s ballad to Bruce Springsteen’s mid-Atlantic progressivism, I can’t help but imagine a different, California-based sequel, in which Tom Joad follows the large share of his fellow Okies to the right, walking away from the New Deal once his own people were safely settled in the suburbs.

Even in Woody Guthrie’s work, an unease with the welfare state occasionally crops up. An early song, “Them Big City Ways,” recounts a country boy’s fall from virtue after moving to the city. After squandering his money, Brother John “Got him a job on the WPA / Woke up to eat about twice a day.” Guthrie also proudly noted in a 1939 column that he had never applied for “Relief” himself, despite his poverty. It is easy to follow these values of hard work and self-sufficiency to reactionary politics, once New Deal policies, war-industry jobs, the GI Bill, and so on had pulled many Okies into the middle class. And racist feelings did not die so easily in every white Oakie-Arkie-Texie heart as in Woody’s. A lot of real-life Joads torched the social ladder behind them — and lifted such California political figures as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to national power.

This is not to say that Woody is purely a figment of a progressive coastal imagination, a dreamed-up prophet like Joad. There is a chord in Okie populism that rings out for economic justice, which we might follow through Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie to Elizabeth Warren. (My own Okie grandpa taught me what a “scab” was during a Safeway grocery strike when I was 14.) Yet a lot of Tom Joad’s children and grandchildren have lost those notes, or drowned them out with their pride in self-sufficiency or the competing heritage of racial resentment. Many of them rally to the New Man Trump as he calls for an impregnable wall to stop Latin American migrants, in a clear echo of what Woody called California’s “foreign legion,” stopping westward migrants at the Arizona–California border. One of the 1939 records discovered 60 years later was an early version of the tune “Do Re Mi,” in which a new Californian punctured the migrant’s dream that “California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see.” Woody warned, and historians and fans ought to keep in mind, “Believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot / If you ain’t got the do re mi.”


Josh Garrett-Davis is the Gamble assistant curator at the Autry Museum of the American West and the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains.

LARB Contributor

Josh Garrett-Davis is the Gamble assistant curator at the Autry Museum of the American West and the author of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains.


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