Woody Guthrie is one of the most universally celebrated musical figures of the 20th century, and there's been a gale of veneration accompanying the 100th anniversary of his birth tomorrow. This includes a weekend of tributes and events in his former 'hood Echo Park, and the renaming of a public square downtown in his honor. Our feature this week, meanwhile, tells the story of his time in Los Angeles, pre-fame, through analysis of four unearthed singles that were recorded here.
But much of Guthrie's story has been overlooked in our nation's attempt to lionize him as a working-class crusader and political icon over the years. For starters, few know that his father was a Klansman. Pops was also an upper-middle class Okehma, Okla., politician and land speculator. Guthrie, then, learned to sing and play guitar by imitating blues records from the comfort of his bedroom, not around a migrant labor camp fire. Throw in a nasty racist streak (outlined below), and one can make the case that his public and political presentation was fake, a theatrical facade.
His reputation as a selfless crusader, outspoken Everyman and indefatigable defender of the little guy is an easily punctured myth; one only need to examine his innumerable biographies, which we reference with footnotes below.
For starters, Guthrie originally said he took up the harmonica after hearing a local African-American street performer named George, who kindly mentored him. That was a lie. Years later, he recanted, admitting he learned from a neighborhood peer, and that the bluesman never existed.*
Then there was the fact that Guthrie claimed joining the Communist party was the best thing he'd ever done, but, according to the FBI, he never actually became a card-carrying member.**
His famous “This Machine Kills Fascists” slogan on his guitar? Turns out that was a morale-boosting WWII government slogan printed on stickers that were handed out to defense plant workers — capitalist propaganda, if you will.
Then there's the fact that whenever Guthrie's sociopolitical stance became unpopular, he tended to switch course to a previously opposed viewpoint. He derided FDR as Churchill's lapdog and aspiring war profiteer, and sold the Communist pitch that WWII was “capitalist fraud.” When that position became untenable, Guthrie transmogrified into a staunch, patriotic Roosevelt and war supporter, slanting his lyrics toward flag-waving anti-fascism, beginning with “Reuben James.”
Guthrie cheered Joseph Stalin long and loud, defending the Reds' invasion of Poland. (Biographer Will Kaufman found the extent and duration of Guthrie's pro-Stalin stance “shocking.”)
But the most damning buried Guthrie biographical fact? That he was, just like his old man, a racist.
Having blacked up as a teenager in Okemah to perform a half-baked minstrel show, Guthrie while living in Echo Park took time out from championing oppressed white Okies to doodle his innumerable cartoons of what he described as “jungle blacks,” a group he also referred to as “niggers,” “darkies,” “chocolate drops” and, yes, “monkeys.”*
After encountering a group of African-Americans on Santa Monica Beach one day in 1937, Guthrie immortalized the meeting in a lengthy poem that included stanzas like, “What is that Ethiopian smell / upon the Zephyrs, what a fright!” and “We could dimly hear their chants / and we thought the blacks by chance / were doing a cannibal dance.”*
Broadcasting on Pasadena's KFVD, Guthrie often indulged in on-air employ of ebonics and was stunned when a black listener characterized the singer as “unintelligent” after hearing Guthrie perform songs with titles like “Run, Nigger, Run” and “Nigger Blues.” Fortunately for Guthrie, recordings of these tunes do not survive.
(Guthrie apologists are quick to point out that “nigger” was then in common usage. But its intended meaning was pejorative then — and, yes, racist — just as it is now.)
Later, Guthrie said, “A young Negro in Los Angeles wrote me a nice letter one day telling me the meaning of that word [nigger] and that I shouldn't say it anymore on the air. So I apologized.” He next “tore all the nigger songs out of his songbook.”***
Sounds like he had a change of heart. And, indeed, he went on to pen anti-racist songs.
But the bottom line is that Guthrie was clearly not the simple, working-man's champion that he's portrayed as. The full story is the full story, and glossing over the man's faults does everyone a disservice. Even if it is his birthday.
*Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie by Mark Allan Jackson; p.138
**“There's a Better World a-Coming”: Resolving the Tension Between the Urban and Rural Visions in the Writings of Woody Guthrie by John Partington; see all of Ch 2
***Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein. p.410, pp.95-97