Our music feature this week focuses on the oldest known Woody Guthrie recordings, which were found in Los Angeles and just released; they provide great insight about the young songwriter during his time here in the late 1930s. The combination of shmaltzy cowboy ballads and political lyrics show him to be in transition, heading away from a career in radio toward the populist voice he's remembered for today.
Two of the most interesting songs from those discovered early recordings — “Big City Ways” and “Skid Row Serenade” — provide particular insight into Guthrie's development in Los Angeles. The latter, of course, was named for Skid Row here; you can hear the songs and check out our breakdown of them below.
“Big City Ways”
After the spoken-word intro to this track, notice Guthrie's exaggerated country drawl. Professor and researcher Peter La Chapelle — who found the recordings — argues: “Guthrie…equated being a hillbilly with a sense of a pride, depicting hillbillies — and by extension migrants — as an unpretentious community-oriented people who revered family and lent a hand to the less fortunate.”
The song opens with the line:
Brother John moved into town, he rented him a flat and settled down… he's getting them big city ways. Brought his wife and kids along but fifteen dollars didn't last long
Guthrie speaks of the tens of thousands of “Okies” who had picked up and moved to Los Angeles as a result of the dust bowl. But he didn't aim to glorify them so much as sympathize with — and describe — them.
The finance company right next door, got his paycheck and then some more…sister married a gigolo honey, brothers paying alimony… getting them big city ways
Guthrie paints Los Angeles as a corrupting influence on honest people, employing a system that didn't allow country people to succeed. The L.A. Times Sunday Magazine referred to the new residents as “migrant hordes” and “career men in relief” in 1939, the same year Guthrie wrote the song. Its title can be interrupted two ways: as an ironic comment on the image of Los Angeles many had before coming here, or a condemnation of the realities they encountered upon arrival. Perhaps both.
Below: “Skid Row Serenade”
“Skid Row Serenade”
Everybody hits it hard on the Skid Row Boulevard, everybody's skidding around down on Skid Row
Living in Los Angeles from 1937 to 1939, Guthrie must have observed, and been appalled by, the masses of homeless on Fifth Street and Hollywood Boulevard. La Chapelle writes in his 2007 book Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music and Migration to Southern California, that in this song Guthrie, “drew contrasts between the down-and-out residents of these sections and the more well-heeled pedestrians of other parts of town.”
“Skid Row Serenade” sees Guthrie taking aim at bankers and senators (the usual suspects) with a cutting line, calling them as filthy as the flops down on skid row. Guthrie found nothing romantic about flop houses, which he had to stay in upon arriving in L.A.
At one point the song almost becomes a strange version of a love ballad, with Guthrie singing: My sweetheart skids around down on skid row, she sure does look sweet skidding up and down the street, but then quickly turns grave as he has “the skids” put to him and loses his baby, presumably to the the gigolos of “Big City Ways.”
L.A. may have inspired Guthrie — but the city sure pissed him off, as well. Which is not so different than lots of us feel today.