Singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old last Saturday, and all throughout 2012, the music and message that was swept in by the Dust Bowl, roaming in from Oklahoma, has been celebrated with concerts, tribute, and conferences.
The West Coast Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration was held at L.A. Live and the Grammy Museum in April, and the ceremony from the City included 4th and Main renamed as "Woody Guthrie Square."
Traveling to California for its promises, along with other refugees, Guthrie found his writing voice in Los Angeles, specifically in Skid Row said Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie. "He always said he felt more comfortable with the 'down-and-outers' than the 'up-and-comers.' This square really is the hub and the source of inspiration for so much of his work."
At first, it still wasn't clear how this made Woody Guthrie an icon specific to downtown Los Angeles, until you learn how the city shaped the folk singer before he roamed to New York City, where he wrote his signature song, "This Land Is Your Land."
It wasn't an obscure passage through town that shaped Guthrie's music, but social observations that gave weight to his music and stage persona. "He definitely did have a connection to downtown. He lived in that area, basically in flop houses that rent by the week," says Peter La Chapelle, Ph.D., author of "Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California." "As a historian, we are looking at a lot of documents," he says. "We can see he is purposely misspelling or using a folk grammar in his language."
Guthrie witnessed the hillbilly craze in Los Angeles radio shows, which found an audience from those arriving from the Southwest to find work. Most radio stations in town had a hillbilly radio program of one kind or another featuring cowboy songs to more traditional folk songs, says La Chapelle, and in 1938, Guthrie played with his cousin, Jack, on KVFD Radio, then started blending traditional songs with topical lyrics.
In "Big City Ways," Guthrie talks about Dust Bowlers corrupted and compromised by living in California, mostly in a city that, as La Chapelle wrote in his book, teemed with "poverty and swept up in the greatest wave of labor conflicts in its 150-year history."
Guthrie's concerns about problems in the city was seen in what he wrote, and La Chapelle compares his detailed literary powers another working class voice. "I see him as in the same company of John Fante, even though there is no evidence that they met." Guthrie and Fante, who wrote "Ask the Dust" (1939), are, respectively, the literary muses of the folk and beat generation.
His accent on "Ain't Got No Home" was different on separate recordings, playing up the Southwest twang. He was always thinking of his stage presence," says La Chapelle. "Being folksy would sell. He was creating his own culture."
During the summer of 1939, Guthrie's leftist writing also began getting attention, says USC Professor Ed Cray, author of "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie." Cray recalls James Forester, editor of the liberal Hollywood Tribune, described Guthrie's songbook as a "poor cousin" to John Steinbeck but "are relatives just the same" and hired the folk singer to write opinion pieces for his weekly newspaper. Titled "Skid Row," a reference to both Hollywood and downtown's harder streets, Woody's column took up most of the page, and used folk inspired grammar that when you read, the twang jumps off the page filled with text broken up with his illustrations. On Monday, August 7, 1939, one paragraph read, including the spellings:
MOST SKID ROWS IS A BOUT A LIKE: You been there, you know. Dirty side walks. Dirty saloons. Dirty flop houses. Greasy little cafes an churches a passin plates an a doin th best they know how.
Greasy spoon eatin' joints. Slippery seat sody fountans. Slikkedy stairs hotels. Everything in finished in th same old color of gray . . . no matter what color it was last time it was fixed up . . . that was so long ago that its gray agin now . . . and whatever this gray stuff is, theys a coat of it on everthing on th skid row.
Those show Guthrie's take on life, mostly using Los Angeles' seediness mixed with a deceptive fragrance of romance and promise.
This begins to reintroduce Guthrie as a prolific writer, beyond the lyrics he got to setting to music. "Woody Guthrie wrote over 3,000 songs during his lifetime, and only had the opportunity to record about 200 songs, leaving the bulk of his songs unpublished," says Tiffany Colannino, archivist at the Woody Guthrie Archives.
"Fifth Street Blues" has Guthrie calling Skid Row a place "you'd better not hang around" due to its crime and fighting, and is filled with people in despair. The lyrics end with the thought that if you have some money, old Fifth Street becomes "the Wilshire Boulevard."
"Lincoln Heights Jail" is a warning to reckless and drunk drivers not to get smart with the cops, or you get arrested and "get lousy in jail." In "Skid Row Serenade," Guthrie's subject bemoans losing "his sweetheart" on the Hollywood Skid Row, where he winds up thanks to his banker and Senator.
One of the many songs he did complete was "Los Angeles New Years Flood," about the February to March flood of 1938:
No, you could not see it coming
Till through our town it rolled;
One hundred souls were taken
In that fatal New Years flood.
Then he set off to New York City in 1949, and wrote "This Land Is Your Land," as a perturbed response to the blind patriotism of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," as sung by Kate Smith.
It has become an alternative national anthem for the U.S. It presents an "open road freedom" portraying someone strolling as the sun breaks through, "And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: This land was made for you and me."
While Guthrie's recordings are political, and stark, when talking about his people standing hungry, Guthrie writes "I stood there asking. Is this land made for you and me?"
"The folks described in the first two scenes are lined up at the relief line," said Chapelle. "He may be disappointed that if he is known for that song, they did not include the one verse that is fairly political. But it's still political. It isn't an America owned by someone else. We all have common ownership," says Chapelle. "I think it would strike a chord that the song is still around."
With his eye and ear on the social realism of big city livin', there may be a day when Woody Guthrie is not just recognized as a folk musician with deeply resonate, and still current, messages, but a political journalist whose words were not lost in a dust storm of anarchy. His softly plucked guitar strings voiced with a practiced twang embedded protest into our nation's cultural consciousness.
Column and unpublished lyrics from Woody Guthrie Manuscript Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.