The following is a chapter from the book "Woody Guthrie Los Angeles 1937 to 1941" by Darryl Holter and William Deverell, being released January 15 on Angel City Press.
During his years in Los Angeles from 1937 to 1941 Woody Guthrie spent a lot of time on L.A.'s Skid Row. He often worked there, frequently performing his songs for tips and drinks in the bars, coffee shops, and street corners on Main Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets or writing his Woody Sez articles for a daily newspaper with offices on Fifth Street between Main and Spring Streets. He sometimes slept in flophouses, 20 men to a room. These were the years of the Great Depression marked by high unemployment and grinding poverty, and Woody designated himself the voice for those whose voices too often went unheard: the working people, the Dust Bowl refugees, the poor, the homeless, and the people of Skid Row.
Woody's songs and writings expressed a clear and honest understanding of the Skid Row population. He wrote in a dry, folksy, humorous manner. In his early writing in Los Angeles, he deliberately misspelled words to give his writing a "Hillbilly" sound. His writings on Skid Row contain a sense of empathy that derived from his experiences in Oklahoma and Texas when, as a teenager, his middle-class, small-town family was torn apart: his father's business collapsed, his terminally ill mother was sent to an asylum, and his father was burned in an accident that forced Woody to live on his own or with friends or relatives for several difficult years. As the Depression deepened and the dark dust storms ravaged the towns of the Southwest, Woody learned to ride the rails and interact with migrant workers, the homeless, and hoboes. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1937 penniless and without a job or a place to live. As Woody wrote in 1939, "Skid Row is generally where you land when you first hit Los Angeles on a freight train a'blowin' out of the Dustbowl."1
After landing a job hosting a daily fifteen-minute radio show on KFVD, Woody wrote a number of songs for his show that drew upon his experiences in Skid Row. In the song "Skid Row Blues," Woody describes how he has been "skiddin' around on Skid Row, the skiddiest street in town". In "Fifth Street Blues," Woody created a new set of lyrics for a traditional folk song called "Deep Ellum Blues." He tells the story of a soldier, a sailor, and a little girl from Hollywood -- all of whom met a sad fate near Fifth and Main. Woody included "Fifth Street Blues" in a songbook he wrote entitled "On A Slow Train Through California," compiled in Los Angeles in 1939. In the songbook, Woody dedicates the song "in respect and honor to 5th St., Los Angeles, California, for the Spirit that abides there, and for the people who go there, by the forces of an unbalanced social order, or by their own free will... I love the Spirit and the people that walk there."2
Woody's use of the term "the forces of an unbalanced social order" lies at the heart of his assessment of the denizens of Skid Row. In a later passage he offers an explanation of why people stay in Skid Row:
5th St is one of the important places of the 20th Century Fix. When you see the folks of all nations crowded up down there, a goin' and a comin' and a millin' around and a panderin' around, up and down... you might ask why they don't leave... Well, there are two schools of thought. One claims these folks "choose" to be there, and the other claims these folks is "caught" there, like rats in a trap of some kind... I think both arguments is right. Some of the folks choose to be there. Some of 'em is caught down there. The world puts some of 'em on 5th St., and others just naturally like it there... It is a natural growth of a natural society, and is not created by the people that's down there, but by the money grabbers that drove 'em down there."
While celebrating the Skid Row population in "Fifth Street," Woody does not glorify them but, rather, treats them like other human beings from other communities -- noble and flawed, good and bad, honest and dishonest. He recognizes that different types of people, from many backgrounds, inhabit Skid Row or visit it for a variety of reasons. Woody's Skid Row is a loose, fluid community that includes people who have fallen into poverty, people who are trying to rise out of poverty, homeless people, visitors looking for cheap food or drinks or a pawn shop, alcoholics of all classes, people looking to buy or sell marijuana or cocaine, and struggling musicians playing for tips. "Two reasons why you hit Skid Row is something to eat, and somewheres to sleep," Woody wrote. "You can do both cheaper on Skid Row than you can in the more civilized sections of town. Besides the Police bother you too much in the classier sections."3 In his autobiographical novel, "Bound for Glory," Woody tells the story of how he and fellow folksinger Cisco Houston arrived on Skid Row on a cold and rainy December night in 1941 hoping to earn some coins singing for tips. In prose that works as poetry, Woody describes in unvarnished terms the wide variety of people who gather in Skid Row:
This is where the working people come
To try to squeeze a little fun
And rest out of a buffalo nickel;
These three or four blocks of old wobbling flop houses and buildings.
I know you people I see here on the Skid.
The hats pulled down over the faces I can't see.
You know my name and you call me a guitar busker,
a joint hopper, tip canary, kittybox man.
Movie people, hoss wranglers, dead enders, stew bums;
Stealers, dealers, sidewalk spielers;
Con men, sly flies, flat foots, reefer riders;
Dopers, smokers, boiler stokers;
Sailors, whalers, bar flies, brass railers;
Spittoon tuners, fruit-tree pruners;
Cobber, spiders, three-way riders;
Honest people, fakes, vamps and bleeders;
Saviors, saved, and side-street singers;
Whore-house hunters, door-bell ringers;
Footloosers, rod riders, caboosers, outsiders;
Honky tonk and whiskey setters, tight-wads, spendthrifts, race-horse betters;
Blackmailers, gin soaks, comers, goers;
Good girls, bad girls, teasers, whores;
Buskers, corn huskers, dust bowlers, dust panners;
Waddlers, toddlers, dose packers, syph carriers;
Money men, honey men, sad men, funny men;
Ramblers, gamblers, highway anklers;
Cowards, brave guys, stools and snitches;
Nice people, bastards, sonsabitches;
Fair, square, and honest folks;
Sneaking greedy people;
And somewhere, in amongst all these Skid Row skidders --
Cisco and me sung for our chips.4
While working at KFVD, Woody met Ed Robbin, a political activist who wrote for the "People's Weekly World," the West Coast daily of the Communist Party. Robbin also had a show on KFVD that was on the air just before "Wood's Woody and Lefty Lou" show. Robbins befriended Woody and introduced him to the large group of political activists in Los Angeles. Soon Woody was writing articles for the "People's Weekly World," which had its offices on Fifth Street between Spring and Main. One day Robbin took Woody, who as usual carried his guitar slung over his back, to Clifton's Caféteria, which was owned by Clifford Clinton who was active in a movement to reform the political system in L.A. and sometimes allowed unemployed people to pay whatever they thought the food was worth. Woody ate a big meal and then went to the cash register and laid down seven cents. The girl at the register called the manager who asked Woody if he didn't like the food. Woody said he liked it fine, but didn't have the "do, re, mi." The manager asked if Woody wanted him to call the police or ask him to work for a while in the kitchen. Woody chose the latter option and followed the manager into the kitchen. Robbin returned an hour later and went to Clifton's enormous kitchen. There he saw Woody perched on a tall chair singing some of his songs.
Take a seat, Ed, and make yourself at home. Some of these fellers are friends of mine. They listen to me on the radio. We probably did stoop labor in the same fields and ranches and drank in the same bars all the way from Texas to California. Ain't that right fellows? A man said, "Woody, whenever you want some grub, just slip in the back door over yonder. We've got plenty here."5
Woody also described his experiences in the skid rows of Stockton, San Francisco, and Redding, and visited several so-called "Hoovervilles," encampments of homeless people and migratory workers often located near railroad stations. In a song called "Hooversville," Woody described these encampments: "Ramblin' gamblin' rickety shacks, that's Hooversville. Rusty tin and raggedy sacks, that's Hooversville." He found that many of the Dust Bowl refugees were familiar with his radio show and were surprised to see him in the same dire economic situation as they were in. Wandering across the state as a roving reporter for an ephemeral liberal newspaper called "The Light," Woody found himself stranded for two nights on the side of the road near Barstow, California, with a small army of unemployed men with nowhere to go. "These people," Woody reported, "are mostly the ones who have tired of marching with the starvation armies of wandering workers and grown weary of the smell of rotting fruit crops."6 Woody began to refer to the homeless migrants as "my people" as he lived among them in ramshackle huts, leaky tents, with hunger and disease. He saw how badly his people were treated, not just by unemployment or poor working conditions, but by open discrimination: many hotels, retail stores and other establishments posted signs saying "No Mexicans or Okies."
By the time he left Los Angeles in 1940 bound for Oregon and then New York, the population of the city's Skid Row had left its mark on Woody Guthrie.
1 Woody Guthrie, "Woody Sez," Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1975. 56.
2 Woody Guthrie, "On a Slow Train through California," WGA Notebook Series-1. Item 89, n.p.
3 "Woody Sez," 58.
4 Woody Guthrie, "Bound For Glory," Plume/Penguin Books, New York, 1983, 258, originally published by E. P. Dutton, New York, 1943.
5 Ed Robbin, "Woody and Me," Lancaster-Miller, Berkeley, California, 1979, 75-76.
6 "The Light," in Ed Cray, "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie," Norton, 2004, 120.