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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Guthrie's contributions to American Folk Music

With this collection of correspondence pertaining to Woody Guthrie, readers can learn about folk music from a man that many consider the ultimate folk artist. Several letters in the collection provide insight into Guthrie's concepts about folk music and into the development of a folk music movement in the 1940s. For example, in a letter he wrote to Alan Lomax on September 19, 1940, Guthrie discusses the origin of folk music in the everyday lives of common people:

"You know pretty near it everybody is a making up all kinds of tunes all along but they just dont know about it. You see a lady doing your housework and youll be a walking around a humming or whistling and half of the time youll mix up about three or four songs that are such a good mixture that you get a brand new song - but the reason you don't know it is because your mind is thinking about all kinds of stuff like dishes and dust pans and kids and husbands and ice men and the traveling salesman or debts you would like to be able to pay if you could only raise the money - and so the tune fades away and that's the last of it. Everybody makes up music and some folks try to harness it and put it to work... Music is some kind of electricity that makes a radio out of a man and his dial is his head and he just sings according to how hes a feeling."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 3 and 4) .

  • According to Guthrie, where do the tunes for folk songs come from?
  • According to Guthrie, why aren't more people aware of the music that they make?
  • How would you characterize the process of creating a folk song, according to this description?
  • Do you think that Guthrie is right that "everybody makes up music?"

Later, in the same letter, Guthrie discusses the content and meaning of folk songs:

"I think real folk stuff scares most of the boys around Washington. A folk song is whats wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is is or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is - that's folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the politicians couldn't find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 7 and 8).

  • What does this passage suggest about why people make up folk songs?
  • What does it suggest about the purpose of a folk song?
  • What were some of the topics that Guthrie sang about? What were the messages of his songs?

Guthrie's belief that folk music should have a social or political significance was expressed in his choice of audiences as well as the songs he wrote. In his letter of February 20, 1941, Guthrie wrote Lomax about how much he enjoyed performing for the CIO union movement in New York City. In his next letter, written from California in April, he tells Lomax that he's "been singing around at some few Peace Rallies, Womens Teas, Union Meetings and so forth."

As the U.S. entered World War II, Guthrie and the group he performed with, called the Almanac Singers, wrote and performed war songs. Guthrie hoped that a recording company would produce a record of these songs and wrote to two companies, Victor and Columbia, arguing:

In these days of a war to the death against fascism, when our whole nation is buckling down to the job of working and fighting the greatest war that ever come over the face of the whole world, I feel of the notion that war songs are work songs and hit a lot harder than empty slogans...

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Victor, ca. June 17, 1942 (page 1).

Guthrie also supported the war by joining the Merchant Marine. When one of the ships he worked on, the Sea Porpoise, was fired at by German submarines, he performed for the three thousand anxious troops who were confined below deck as depth charges sounded around them.

  • According to his letters to Victor and Columbia, why did Guthrie think that war songs were important?
  • In a letter written on March 29, 1946, we learn that Guthrie wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. What do you think he meant by this?
  • Why do you think that Guthrie performed for the troops on board the Sea Porpoise?
  • What do you think Guthrie saw as the purpose of folk music?

The Almanac Singers' repertoire of war songs made them a sudden success. (The index of Subjects provides three letters pertaining to this group). But about eight years later in 1950, another folk group called the Weavers became even more popular with a repertoire of international folk songs. The Weavers included two of the Almanac Singers' original members, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. Guthrie, however, seemed to feel that they abandoned their political beliefs by performing for wealthy audiences at high-profile venues.

  • Does folk music have to be political to be authentic?
  • Does folk music have to be written about issues that impact common people?
  • Can folk music be written by or performed for people of the upper class and still be considered folk music?