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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Historical Comprehension

"Back in the early day," Guthrie wrote in his autobiographical essay "when folks was a crowding into Oklahoma from other states to get a piece of land and buy farms and stuff like that, they had some hard times, and some tough people..." Guthrie saw more tough people surviving hard times when he went to California in 1936. Many families had come from the Dust Bowl to find work in California. There were so many of them, however, that competition was incredible and bosses got away with paying them very low wages. Many families found no work at all.

Guthrie saw these families living out of their cars and camped in makeshift shelters. He was outraged by the injustice and found kindred spirits in members of the American Communist Party who urged these migrants to organize and form unions to defend themselves. Though Guthrie never joined the Party, he embraced its ideals and mission to reform the country's political, economic, and social systems to ensure more equality and better conditions for the working class.

Several letters reflect Guthrie's Communist ideals in his sensitivity to the condition of the working class and to problems of corruption. For example, in his letter of February 15, 1941 Guthrie writes, "folks are just plain folks everywhere you go, all has been hit hard, went through several political cyclones, been sold out so often that they feel like they've got pimps." In another letter, called Vote for Bloat, he remarks on problems with elections in the United States:

"The average elections are about as useful as a slop jar without a bottom in it.... Down in Baltimore Md., they wont let you buy no liquor on election day and so they sell more than ever on that day. They say they want you to vote sober. What difference does it make, you couldnt vote no wronger. Sometimes I think they ought to try it the other way. If the people was to ever win an election, they'd think they was dead and in heaven, I mean in heaven without a having to die.... Some states charge you $1.75 to vote they call it poll tax, that takes a weeks groceries and snuff and most folks figure that the democrats aint worth 1.75 and the republicans aint worth that much."

From Vote for Bloat (page 4).

The outbreak of World War II presented a crisis for the American Communist Party. The Soviet Union, which was governed by Communists, signed a nonaggression pact with Germany that caused some of the American Communist Party members to disavow the Russian Communists. Other people including Guthrie, however, defended the group. When it came to talk of the U.S. entering the war, Guthrie was opposed. On February 15, 1941, he wrote about the "war scare" in the media:

"...just like on any other subject, folks has got something to say about it; they might not let on around high society ginks, but the people has got just a plenty to say about every little thing that's said and done that's a leading us down this lonesome road to the war."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 15, 1941 (page 2).

  • Why might Guthrie and some American Communists have opposed U.S. involvement in World War II?

Once the U.S. entered the war, however, Guthrie enthusiastically supported a victory against Fascism, writing in a letter to Lomax on June 7, 1942, "How's the war spirit out there in Washington? High, I hope. I hope everybody's back of me and Harry Bridges and Joe Curran and Franklin D., in this fight to plow Hitler under." Do a full-text search on war for more materials.

  • Was Guthrie's support of the war effort once the U.S. entered the conflict in line with his Communist ideals? Why or why not?
  • What do Guthrie's letters to Victor and Columbia suggest about why he supported the war?

When the Soviet Union invaded Poland, more and more Americans came to despise Communism. Guthrie's defense of the Russian Communists early in the war had cost him a radio job in California and his Communist ideals brought him some unwanted publicity a year later in New York:

"...me & Cisco sung one week up here on 44 Street in a joint called JImmy Dwyers Sawdust Trail.... The big reporters from the newspapers come down and they listened to the songs about the people in the dust bowl and about the ones that are chasing up and down that big 66 highway with empty bowls and the ones that went to California trying to swap a crocked crock bowl for a sugar bowl and the police and big farmers got the whole works — and the papers here, the Sun and others give a pretty good write up or two about the dust bowl and especially P.M. & the Sun Sept 5th 1940 copy — and lots of people wrote in hollering that the reporter fell for a lot of fifth colum stuff. They called me a comm-unist and a wild man and everything you could think of but I dont care what they call me. I ain't a member of any earthly organization my trouble is I really ought to go down in the morning and just join everything.... I've always knowed this was what I wanted to talk and sing about and I'm used to running into folks that complain but I dont ever intend to sell out or quit or talk or sing any different because when I do that drug store lemonade stuff I just open up my mouth and nothing comes out."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 5 and 6).

  • Why did the people who wrote into the newspaper call Guthrie a Communist?
  • What does this letter suggest about why Guthrie might not have joined the American Communisty Party?
  • What can you tell from this letter about why Guthrie believed in Communist ideals?

Though the war ended, American distrust of Communism only grew. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee began its investigation into the Hollywood and performance industry, trying to identify members of the American Communist Party. Some of Guthrie's friends were members of the Party. Fellow Almanac Singer, Pete Seeger, was monitored by the FBI for years. In 1961, he was sentenced to ten years in jail for refusing to provide the Committee with names of other Party members. A year later, however, the Court of Appeals dismissed the conviction.

  • Why might you expect folk musicians and folklorists to be sympathetic to Communist ideals?
  • How important do you think Guthrie's Communist ideals were to him? To what extent did they define who he was, how he lived, and what he achieved?