On July 10, four days before the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, Smithsonian Folkways released the legendary folk singer's oldest known recordings for the first time. The songs, part of a massive box set titled Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, take Los Angeles as their subject matter and were recorded here. They offer insight into the developing mind of Guthrie, a young man at a political and personal crossroads.
Who was that man, and how does he differ from the iconic figure portrayed by history? In addition to shedding light on Guthrie's time in Los Angeles, the recordings paint him as more than simply a radical communist or a champion of the people. Rather, they show him to be a born entertainer with a keen eye toward his career, trying hard to succeed in show business.
Uncovered by author and researcher Peter La Chapelle in 1999 at Los Angeles' Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, the recordings are presumed to be from 1939, which predates Guthrie's influential 1940 album, Dust Bowl Ballads. These newly discovered recordings consist of four songs: “Ain't Got No Home,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Big City Ways” and “Skid Row Serenade.” The latter two were never rerecorded anywhere else and had remained largely unknown until La Chapelle unearthed them.
A 42-year-old associate history professor at Nevada State College with a studious disposition, La Chapelle is the author of the 2007 book Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music and Migration to Southern California. He found the discs while writing his dissertation about Dust Bowl migrants. During research for a chapter on Guthrie in 1999, he contacted Harry Hay, known for helping found the pioneering gay-rights organization Mattachine Society and friends with Will Geer, who starred in the popular TV show The Waltons and was a close friend of Guthrie's.
Hay told La Chapelle that he obtained some Guthrie recordings during the 1930s and used to play them at left-wing cocktail parties, but that he had donated them to the Southern California Library. After a little digging, La Chapelle found them; the library had no idea what it was sitting on. Hay died of lung cancer three years later.
The found recordings had orange labels and were pressed onto double-sided “Presto” discs, 10-inch, lacquer-covered aluminum records, which run at 78 rpm, and which were used by radio stations of the era to record and archive broadcasts. One of their sleeves had “Woody Guthrie, 1937” written on it, but La Chapelle contends that they were more likely made in 1939, as Guthrie's own meticulous songbooks date “Big City Ways” to that year. That means they were recorded at the tail end of Guthrie's time in Los Angeles — which he left at the close of 1939 — and present a picture of his final year here.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., the son of a middle-class real estate man. He spent much of his adolescence without parental supervision, after a series of calamitous fires left his mother institutionalized and debt forced his father to seek work in Texas. After a period of drifting around the country in his early 20s, Guthrie lived in Los Angeles from 1937 to 1939. Though his first residence was at a 25-cent-a-night flophouse, he landed a job running a series of radio shows at KFVD in Glendale, where La Chapelle thinks the songs were recorded. One program, with his cousin Jack “Oklahoma” Guthrie, was called “The Oklahoma and Woody Show.” The program sought to make rural people feel at home in the big city, as the Dust Bowl had sent tens of thousands of them to Los Angeles in the '30s. Full of cowboy ballads and hillbilly songs, it was, without question, commercial radio meant to appeal to a large audience.
Woody Guthrie appeared interested in furthering his own career as a mainstream country musician, something critics and historians tend to overlook, La Chapelle says. During this time, Guthrie was mostly singing the type of music he played on his program.
“One thing that these recordings really show is that Woody was a work in progress — he really evolved,” La Chapelle says. “They show he was considering a more commercial career.”
Indeed, the tune of “Skid Row Serenade” is lifted from a Delmore Brothers hit called “Brown's Ferry Blues.”
Guthrie in his Los Angeles years was thus clearly more complex than a simple folk hero, as the left would have him, or a militant Stalinist, as the right would. A quote from his memoir detailing how he used advertising and show business techniques to promote Los Angeles unions is telling: “We used every trick and device of the trades of salesmen, show men, P.T. Barnum's, Flo Zeigfelds, Jimmie Rodgers, and every twist of the nipple that filled California's dry and native soul with a fighting kind, a more personal, human, kind of folk song, folk dance, folk yell.” Here was a man who knew how to sell his ideas of radicalism.
Los Angeles was where Guthrie's political self began to manifest itself — he began writing a column for local left-wing and Communist newspapers such as The People's World and made friends with political activists like Hay, developing the acumen to later create some of the greatest populist art ever made. (Guthrie was a noted painter and doodler as well.)
KFVD station owner and Democratic activist Frank Burke allowed for increasingly leftist and populist content to be broadcast on his station, even giving Guthrie his own show in 1938, called Woody, The Lone Wolf. He'd become more than just a “hillbilly act” — he had a show with the creative freedom to say what was on his mind.
That these four songs were made during Guthrie's L.A. years makes perfect sense — they are an intersection of traditional song structures and disarmingly political lyrics. Having reappropriated the jangly Delmore Brothers rhythm in “Skid Row Serenade,” he sings about the hardships of the homeless on Fifth Street, crooning in an exaggerated Okie twang: “My senator sent me down on the Skid Row. I thought he was tops but he's rotten as the crops and as filthy as the flops on the Skid Row.”
The lyrics of “Big City Ways” would still resonate today: “The banker got his furniture/Got him a job on the WPA but got laid off the other day/Momma mops a rich man's floor.” Guthrie would have been right at home singing this at an Occupy rally.
“There is that little bit of politics that comes through. It's the seed,” La Chapelle says. “Perhaps we're hearing the gestation process.”
Guthrie left for New York in 1940 and went on to record the classic Dust Bowl Ballads there, which would influence generations of musicians and was revived in the 1960s by Bob Dylan and others. But Los Angeles made a deep impression on him. In 1941, Guthrie wrote in a letter to archivist Alan Lomax that Los Angeles “is full of people that work and talk a working man's lingo, no matter what tongue or color.”
Guthrie's greatest gift was to put into words emotions that everyone could understand and feel deeply, and it seems likely Los Angeles helped him evolve as an artist.