Figure of the Fortnight | Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Guthrie
We all need heroes. I’ve found some in some in interesting places. But this last one I would like to share hails from my very own home state of Oklahoma. Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967), Born in the dusty, oil-boom town of Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie became an icon of Americana, an archetype of folk music who sang and celebrated the travails of suffering nation, wracked by dust bowl and depression but also by the cruelty of exploitation, racism, and greed.
The Dust Bowl of the late 1920s left the agricultural heartland of America destitute and drought-stricken, and Woody joined the throngs of grim faced, down-and-out men, riding the rails, hitchhiking, or packing their families and entire lives into old jalopies to head West—to California, the Garden of Eden—in hope of something better.
Woody traveled along, singing in the labor camps and on the road, celebrating the plight of these “dust bowl refugees.”
“On topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the compassionate and humanist principles of Jesus Christ, the outlaw hero Pretty Boy Floyd, and the union organizers that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California’s agricultural communities, Woody proved himself a hard-hitting advocate for truth, fairness, and justice,” according to the Woody Guthrie Foundation. In “The Blood of the Lamb,” for instance, Woody sings, “have you learned to love your neighbors of all colors creeds and kinds, are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”
As John Steinbeck writes, “Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
His autobiography, Bound for Glory, is one of my all-time favorite books. His simple but biting wit, his frankness with both joy and pain, draws you in and the story itself, rambling, real, often hilarious and always entertaining, keeps you there.
One of my favorite scenes is the immense brawl that breaks out in a boxcar full of dirty, diseased, surly and miserable men. Woody manages to survive with most of his teeth and his guitar intact, but the description is at once, comic, pitiful and beautiful.
Indeed, that is what Woody exemplifies, for me: an embrace of the sprawling mass of humanity, the good, the miserable, and the ability to sing about it, to find beauty in it all. Angels don’t sing folk music, of course. That’s our job. And perhaps there is something redemptive about that embrace. In a way, Woody’s music can help us learn to be redeemed, to pray, to take our story and sing it, all of it. And Woody can teach us to love even the dingiest “sinners” and scoundrels, to love because we are one of them, to “take it easy, but take it!”