The Ceaseless Optimism of Woody Guthrie’s Activist Life 

Woody Guthrie — the name conjures the wandering composer-as-busking musician serenading hard times, with the slogan “this machine kills fascists” painted on a six-string guitar. A series of recent projects around the artist dive into the life and work of the complicated, multitalented creator: Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song at the Morgan Library & Museum; Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom (Chronicle Books, 2021), featuring his art, letters, lyrics, photographs, and writings, accompanied by essays by the Guthrie family; and Gustavus Stadler’s Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life (Beacon Press, 2021), looking behind the scenes at the musician’s mid-to-late career. Each proves novelist Gabriel García Marquez’s famous maxim that modern identity forms three selves in one: we meet the public Guthrie, the private Guthrie, and the secret Guthrie.

The public figure dominates the multimedia installations and archival bounty in Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song. This is apt, given the dismal parallels between the precarious 2020s and the 1930s and ’40s — decades that marked the musician’s creative peak. The Morgan exhibition also thoroughly tracks how Guthrie’s outsized posthumous influence shaped several generations of socially conscious musicians — from Johnny Cash to Rage against the Machine, and countless others in between — both in the United States and overseas.

At the Morgan, handwritten and typescript lyrics, single-spaced journals, and image-text paintings, cartoons, and drawings unfurl a relentless autobiographical record that reveals how Guthrieed his songbook — 3,000 original compositions, by one count — by attending to the physical and emotional suffering wrought by the daily grind. As he saw it, homegrown greed and its offspring, resentment, produced American brutality and injustice — an insight as true of the United States today as it was in his era.

Woody Guthrie, “Civil Rights. They’re Safeguarded All Right!” (1938), pen and ink (©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.)

Yet Guthrie’s unwavering joy amid the anguish of the Depression-era and war years is stunning. His creative work — mostly made for private or familial purposes — is, like his protest music, fueled by libidinous courage; a project of musical resistance, it is a folk music version of what jazz sage Albert Murray famously calls “stomping the blues.”

Born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 to an embittered father (who, according to some biographers, may have been active in the local unit of the murderous Ku Klux Klan) and a mentally ill, volatile mother, who passed down her debilitating Huntington’s disease to her son, Guthrie had his political consciousness shaped by how Oklahoma’s turmoil reflected larger American problems: predatory oil prospectors and corporate agribusiness, aided by complicit politicians and corrupt bankers, exploited cheap labor, displaced Native Americans from long-held land, perpetuated and extended Jim Crow laws, and fed a corrosive self-loathing among the white working class, discontent further stocked by Wilson-era veneration of Wall Street and American militarism.

Woody Guthrie, “Daily Diary, March 18–19, 1942” (©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.)

The Morgan exhibition shows Guthrie performing music in saloons and union halls, while making a living as a sign painter. As a young father of three, he uprooted from a brief residence on the Texas panhandle and carved a peripatetic route to Los Angeles in 1937, where his family was reviled, like many migrants seeking employment in California, as unwanted outsiders, or “Okies. ”

Somehow, the poisonous American anger that swirled around Guthrie never corrupted that innate creative optimism. Empathy was his reliable muse. He performed on LA radio stations, composing bluesy ballads and song-stories from the lived perspectives of others he knew well, such as coal miners and rail workers, as well as itinerant sex workers and deported Mexican laborers; his lyrics often channel real-life figures fighting powerful adversaries, like the abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman, Black citizens gunned down by Southern cops, the executed Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomo Vanzetti, and, most famously, the fictional Tom Joad, a Dust Bowl-era archetype of the abject American farmworker, popularized by John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Woody Guthrie, “In El Rancho Grande” (1936), oil on board (©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. Courtesy Barry & Judy Ollman)

As his music enjoyed national circulation, Guthrie penned Bound for Glory (1943), a poetic autobiography, and House of Earth (1947), a novel that fuses domestic newly sexuality with New Deal activism as impoverishedweds plan a new life by building an adobe home. The milieu is brought to vivid life in a rare Guthrie landscape painting on view at the Morgan.

Guthrie reached his zenith when he resettled in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1940s. There, he befriended an ardent supporter in ethnomusicologist and record producer Alan Lomax, and found comrades in singer and activist Pete Seeger and folk-blues pioneer Huddie Ledbetter (aka, “Lead Belly”). In between brief tours in the merchant marines during World War II, Guthried collaborated with local musicians and found outlets for political action through memberships in the Popular Front and the Communist Party, mainly via Seeger’s collectivist ensemble the Almanac Singers.

Ultimately, the secret Guthries in confessional letters reproduced in Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdomas well as in the revealing family photographs at the Morgan and, most directly, in Gustavus Stadler’s biography, Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life.

Stadler argues that Guthrie’s second marriage to — and creative collaborations with — Martha Graham-trained classical dancer Marjorie Mazia, along with the gradual onset of Huntington’s disease, accelerated the musician’s sensitivity to vulnerable human bodies, to the need for community-minded “intimate care” ,” and to the revolutionary meanings of “union” as simultaneously political, economic, and erotic. He and Mazia attended downtown parties with international guests like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. According to Stadler, these Modernist influences, along with Guthrie’s newfound solidarity with worldwide anti-fascism movements, informed his best-known songs, including the anthem “This Land Is Your Land” (1944), written as a populist riposte to the jingoistic chauvinism in Kate Smith’s top-selling 1939 recording of “God Bless America.”

In a loving home in Coney Island, Guthrie and his wife began a new family. They endured domestic tragedy when their daughter Cathy died in an electrical fire; still, these years seem to have been his most personally fulfilling. Mazia’s immigrant family educated the musician on the long association between suffering and exile in Jewish traditions, further expanding the diction and imagery in his songs and art. Guthrie even drafted an unfinished song lyric decrying the racism of local developer Fred Trump — the Ku Klux Klan-affiliated father of You Know Who — into whose whites-only Brooklyn development the Guthrie family had moved in 1950.

Guthrie’s final 15 years are only viewable through a glass darkly, even with Stadler’s probing research into those decades. As his marriage to Mazia fell apart, he toggled between lengthy confinements in psychiatric hospitals while Huntington’s disease eroded his physiology; often he wandered as far as California and Florida. He remarried after a series of troubled affairs, and was at least once found lost on the streets of New Jersey.

Fittingly, the Morgan museum features a note by a young Bob Dylan (who dropped out of college after reading Bound for Glory) reminding himself to visit Guthrie in central Brooklyn. The fateful meeting surely represents a critical turning point in American cultural history.

Woody Guthrie, “Sketch for Woody Sez” (1939), colored pencil and ballpoint pen (©Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.)

A frail, often cognitively impaired Guthrie lived in the shadows as the 1960s dawned. Yet an early-period artwork, which he revised by layering words onto its original imagery, demonstrates how, even when seriously ill, he could integrate that radiantly colored, buoyant hope with a mindfulness about grave predicaments. That artwork, like these Guthrie revivals, shows an imaginative, resilient consciousness at odds with our era’s dour and weak-willed progressivism, as it struggles to thwart popular autocrats and intensifying ethno-fascist movements. Guthrie’s lifework could provide the opening soundtrack to another rousing and desperately needed American revival from the left — an unified, embodied reawakening worthy of the democracy itself.

Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song Continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through May 22. The exhibition was curated in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Center, Woody Guthrie Publications, and music historian Bob Santelli.

Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli (2021) is published by Chronicle Books. Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life by Gustavus Stadler (2021) is published by Beacon Press. Both are available online and in bookstores.

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