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How Los Angeles Shaped Woody Guthrie’s Politics

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Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman and Woody Guthrie promote their Woody and Lefty Lou radio show on Los Angeles’s KFVD, ca. 1937. (Image courtesy Woody Guthrie Archive/Woody Guthrie Center.)

The great American songwriter Woody Guthrie is usually associated with his home state of Oklahoma and the folk scene of New York City’s Greenwich Village. But it was his time…

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Woody Guthrie singing at Shafter Labor Camp, 1941.

The great American songwriter Woody Guthrie is usually associated with his home state of Oklahoma and the folk scene of New York City’s Greenwich Village. But it was his time in LA that helped define his politics. Those years are the subject of a new book, “Woody Guthrie LA, 1937 to 1941,” co-edited by historians Darryl Holter and William Deverell.

Guthrie came from a middle class family in Okemah, Oklahoma. His mother had Huntington’s disease, which he eventually succumbed to as well, and she was committed to a state hospital. Guthrie was pretty much on his own after the age of 16. He learned to play guitar in high school and performed old-time music with friends in a group called “The Corncob Trio.” He learned hundreds of hillbilly and folk songs, and began writing his own compositions about the dust storms that were driving families from their land in the Great Plains.

After hopping freight trains and doing itinerant work in Pampa, Texas, the young musician landed in Los Angeles, along with tens of thousands of other Dust Bowl refugees. But he learned that living in L.A. isn’t cheap.

California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
– From “Do Re Mi” by Woody Guthrie

GUTH-cover1“Woody was someone who read a lot of things and he was always interested in things but his politics were relatively unformed when he came,” Holter said. “He came from places that were basically steeped in segregation. So it was a very different atmosphere and he came to L.A. and a lot of his political views really changed. I describe him as a kind of a dustbowl populist.”

Guthrie never had a permanent address in Los Angeles. He crashed with friends in Echo Park and Glendale, and stayed in flop houses on Skid Row, where he also busked in cafes and bars and on street corners for spare change.

As early as 1938, Woody Guthrie drew a series of editorial cartoons during his days in Southern California, commenting on issues Los Angeles faced then, and surprisingly, still faces now. (Civil Rights - They’re Safeguarded All Right! Illustration by Woody Guthrie. © Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.)
As early as 1938, Woody Guthrie drew a series of editorial cartoons during his days in Southern California, commenting on issues Los Angeles faced then, and surprisingly, still faces now. (Civil Rights – They’re Safeguarded All Right! Illustration by Woody Guthrie. © Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.)

In the summer of 1937, Woody and his cousin, Leon “Oke” Guthrie were hired to host the “Oklahoma and Woody Show” on L.A. radio station KFVD. A couple months later, Guthrie launched “The Woody and Lefty Lou Show” with Maxine Crissman, the daughter of a friend. He called her “Lefty Lou” because she was left-handed and because Lou rhymed with Missou, her home state of Missouri. They received nearly 500 fan letters within the show’s first month, and it became the highest-rated show on the station.

“The show became very popular, particularly among the Dust Bowl population that lived in L.A.,” Holter said. “Even if you were poor you could listen to the radio. And a lot of letters came in and Guthrie became sort of a minor radio celebrity.”

In 1939, Woody met Ed Robbin, a fellow radio host at KFVD, who got him a gig singing at a Communist Party rally at the Embassy Auditorium in downtown LA. Guthrie became a fixture among LA’s radical left and performed at many political and union events around Los Angeles. He also wrote a column for the Communist newspaper People’s Daily World. He called it “Woody Sez,” and wrote in a hillbilly style to seem more authentic.

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Photographer Seema Weatherwax captured Woody Guthrie near a Shafter, California, labor camp in 1941.

“Woody Guthrie is a very shrewd political actor,” Deverell said. “On the one hand, we might assume – and that could be right – that he’s surprised by his rising success and fame. On the other hand, it may be in part cultivated by his own sense of a persona. So he’s very clever about identifying as just folks.”

Guthrie visited Dust Bowlers in their encampments, which were nicknamed Hoovervilles. For these migrants, the big city held plenty of danger.

“When they came to L.A., I mean this is a whole new experience. Not only was it big, noisy, full of cars, full of people, but also you could buy liquor all over, it wasn’t dry. There were all kinds of temptations. You could buy your cars on credit. You could buy furniture on credit and lose it as well,” Holter said.

Brother John moved into town, rented him a flat and he settled down
Lord lord, he’s getting them big city ways.
Brought his wife and kids along, but fifteen dollars didn’t last long
Lord lord, he’s getting them big city ways.
– From “Them Big City Ways” by Woody Guthrie

Guthrie also traveled around the Golden State. He performed political skits with actor Will Geer to support strikers in the cotton fields of Kern County and got arrested at the state capitol in Sacramento. He performed for migrant farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley. He met the writers John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser. Guthrie’s songs addressed issues of inequality that were amplified by the Depression, and are still relevant today

“Things like police community relations. Things like unemployment. Things like poverty. Things like homelessness. Things like really heavy rainfalls and people getting swept away by the L.A. River.,” Holter said. “Things about love, things about sex, the same kinds of things we talk about today. And it’s a kind of timelessness to the themes of his songs.”

Kind friend, do you remember?
On that fatal New Year’s night
The lights of old Los Angeles
Was a flick’ring, Oh, so bright.
A cloud burst hit the mountains
It swept away our homes;
And a hundred souls was taken
In that fatal New Years flood.
– From “Los Angeles New Years Flood” by Woody Guthrie

From 1937 to 1941, his years in Los Angeles, Woody Guthrie spent much time on its Skid Row, singing there or writing his Woody Sez articles for a daily newspaper. (Image courtesy Woody Guthrie Archive/Woody Guthrie Center.)
From 1937 to 1941, his years in Los Angeles, Woody Guthrie spent much time on its Skid Row, singing there or writing his Woody Sez articles for a daily newspaper. (Image courtesy Woody Guthrie Archive/Woody Guthrie Center.)

“The L.A. River, in the early years of the Depression, it takes a heavy, heavy rainfall and it floods its banks. And many of those Okie and Arkie out-migrants from the Dust Bowl were living in encampments alongside the river. And they get washed away. Or at least their possessions get washed away,” Deverell said.

Woody Guthrie and his family left LA in 1939 and moved to New York, where he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a response to Kate Smith’s then-current hit “God Bless America.” The authors of the new book say Guthrie’s experiences in Los Angeles inspired what would become America’s “other” national anthem.

Guthrie eventually wrote some three thousand songs, though we only have the score for about half of them. He’d revisit some songs and modify the lyrics, reflecting his own changing political ideas. For example, one stanza of “This Land Is Your Land” often gets left out:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
– From “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie

Seeger eventually became a hero to the burgeoning folk scene of the 1960s and a mentor to musicians like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.

Woody Guthrie wrote, illustrated, and bound a pamphlet that included his eyewitness observations of Depression-era California. (Image courtesy Woody Guthrie Archive/Woody Guthrie Center.)
Woody Guthrie wrote, illustrated, and bound a pamphlet that included his eyewitness observations of Depression-era California. (Image courtesy Woody Guthrie Archive/Woody Guthrie Center.)

Guthrie died in 1967. Interestingly, his ghost keeps popping up in the 2016 presidential election. When Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned in Oklahoma last month, he made sure to stop by the Woody Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa. Sanders has been a long-time fan of Guthrie’s music, even covering “This Land Is Your Land” on an album of folk classics with a couple dozen Vermont musicians nearly 30 years ago, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt. And at an Iowa rally earlier this year, he hummed along to the tune onstage with Vampire Weekend.

That’s not the only connection to the 2016 campaign. Earlier this year an archivist found in Guthrie’s notebooks some nasty things he’d written about Fred Trump, the father of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Guthrie rented an apartment in Brooklyn belonging to Trump for two years. And Guthrie wrote angrily about what he called racist housing practices by the real estate mogul, specifically about the lack of diversity among the residents of Trump’s Beach Haven apartments.