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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Early-Twentieth-Century Social History

Guthrie took the time in many of his letters to describe aspects of everyday life in the various places where he lived and traveled. These detailed accounts bring the social history of the early twentieth century to life.

In his autobiographical essay and a letter called Vote for Bloat, Guthrie describes the "wild country" in which he grew up, during the 1910s and 20s in Oklahoma and Texas. He describes the crime, fighting, drinking, and gambling of a frontier town that only intensified when the discovery of oil turned it into a boom town. However, he also describes a sunnier side of life:

"I guess you wonder how the devil folks could be happier out in a wild and wooly place like Oklahoma was right after it got to being a state. Well folks sometimes are a lot better satisfied a building up somethin, than they are after they get it built up. I dont know why that is.... I remember how they use to celebrate. I use to go around to all of the old time square dances, picnics, an pie suppers, and play parties, and out of door picnics, and fairs and carnivals — where the girls would come a steppin out in a brand new cotton dress, and the boys would be dressed up like a million dollars in a 4 bit pair of overhalls and a good store bought work shirt — and shoes or no shoes, they would all get together and sing and dance and holler and yell and run and jump and raise old billy hall — and really get a kick out of bein alive."

From Autobiographical Essay (page 2).

  • Why do you think that there was so much crime, violence, and corruption in Oklahoma during the 1910s and 20s?
  • What is a boom town? Why is there so much gambling, drinking, violence, and prostitution in a boom town?
  • What did people do for enjoyment in Oklahoma during the 1910s and 20s? How have leisure and social activities changed over time?
  • Do you think that Guthrie enjoyed growing up in this culture? Why or why not?

In his autobiography, Guthrie also describes hopping a freight train to Oklahoma, probably during the 1930s, and being shocked by how much his home state had changed:

"We was a passing by a a house. It was a farm house. It had been a fairly decent one is its day and time, but it was vacant now. And the big slim weeds had growed up all over the yard. Windows all broke out. Porch was rotted out and a fallin sideways to the ground, like a calf that hat been hit with a sledge. The roof was a shingle roof. The old shingled was a sticking all slaunchways and some shingles up and some shingles down — and the whole cussed roof was swayed in wores than a swayback mare about to give birth to twin colts. Paint all gone....We hadn't rattled but about a quarter till I looked out and seen the same thing... I never had thought of Oklahoma as a state of deserted farms and shell shocked houses, and limber windmills, and rusty plows — but there it was mile after mile, nothing but hills and hollers that hid all except the roof of another such a layout."

From Autobiographical Essay (pages 4 and 5).

  • Why were all of the houses that Guthrie saw deserted? Where had all of the former residents gone and why?
  • Why do you think Guthrie was riding in a freight car?

Other letters reflect the 1930s as well. In his letter to Lomax written on September 19, 1940, he mentions the migration of families from the Dust Bowl to California during the previous decade. Guthrie's description of hitchhiking outside of Reno, Nevada was probably recollected from a trip made during the 1930s. And in his November, 1940 letter to Lomax Guthrie commented, "Did I tell you about the pool they took to find out who was the most popular man in the world and Jesus Christ was first and Will Rogers second?"

  • Why did so many families from the Dust Bowl go to California?
  • What did Guthrie mean when he wrote that in California, "the police and big farmers got the whole works?"
  • Who was Will Rogers? Why do you think that he was so popular during the 1930s?

Most of the collection's letters were written in the 1940s and reflect the history and culture of that decade. Browse letters for references to the WPA, the Department of the Interior, World War II, and Communism as well as descriptions that convey a sense of time and place. In a letter written on September 19, 1940 Guthrie describes life in New York City, while his letter of January 22, 1941 compares life in New York City to life in California. Guthrie wrote this letter during a trip to California. He describes playing some songs in a saloon in exchange for a steak dinner and being pulled over by the police on his drive out there:

"The cops see me with no shave and this purty car and they stop me about every four miles and look over all of the papers and stuff and they say they still dont believe it but it rattles their brain and they boost me over into the next county and another bunch takes in after me and lots of times I got so many standin around a reading them papers that I wish I was a selling bade polish or belt oil or 45 grease of some cheap grade I could pick up a few nickels. I got two carbon copies of all of the papers and have dam near it wore out the car windows rolling them up and down to hand out papers."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, January 22, 1941 (page 2).

  • Why did the Department of the Interior hire Guthrie to write songs about the Bonneville Dam?
  • Why did some people call Guthrie a Communist and why were they upset by his songs?
  • What was the importance of radio during the 1940s?
  • How does Guthrie portray politics during this decade?
  • Why did the police keep pulling Guthrie over during his drive to California?
  • What do Guthrie's anecdotes about being pulled over by the police and playing songs for a steak dinner suggest about culture during the 1940s?
  • What might account for differences between the culture of New York City and the culture of California in the 1940s?
  • To what extent was there a national culture at that time?