In 1912, a man was born, one who’d become a voice for the hard-working people of America. His name was Woody Guthrie. He was from a small town in Oklahoma, where the people did what they could with what little they had. His parents did what they could to raise their children, even though it was often difficult to get by. Before Woody was in school, he would make up songs and sing them on stage, which was really his front porch. His mother taught him and his siblings songs. In fact, Woody’s grandmother said that his mother loved music as a kid, singing and playing piano. His mother would explain the background to the lyrics and told her children to try to understand how other people see things. In his autobiography Bound For Glory, Guthrie recalls that he loved listening to his mother sing “The Sherman Cyclone”; he fell asleep listening to the words, “thinking about all the people in the world that have worked hard and had somebody else come along and take their life away from them” (Guthrie 88). Over the years, Guthrie would face the same scenarios as other down-on-their-luck workers. Yet, his heartfelt lyrics, describing the plight of the destitute, gave needed voice to the voiceless. Guthrie’s vision was one that unified the poor, no matter their background or skin color.
Throughout his travels across the states, Woody Guthrie met all types of people: young, old, black, brown, white, Asian, crude, and quiet. He was all too familiar with the constant struggle for food and shelter, and he spoke about the need for unity among laborers. He learned to play guitar as a teenager. He started out playing bland songs, but then started singing about what he thought really mattered to working folk across the country. When he was in his mid-twenties, people would often ask his advice on problems they had. One day, Guthrie walked up to a mob of men outside his shack and told them what was on his mind. He exclaimed, “We gotta all git together an’ find out some way ta build this country up. Make all of this here dust quit blowin’. We gotta find a job an’ put ever’ single livin’ one of us ta work. Better houses ‘stead of these here little old sickly shacks” (Guthrie 189). Unfortunately, those men ignored him. Perhaps, they had already lost hope. Many had become numb to the pain of barely living and could only think about where they’d get their next meal.
Of course, Guthrie wasn’t the only one at this time who was trying to spread a message to other migrant workers about the need to work together for a better life. Around the time of the Dust Bowl, unions were all over the country. As he recalls in his autobiography, he was accused of being a union man. When he was outside of Sonora, CA, heading to a relatives’ home, he was stopped by police. They had a suspicion that he was different from the men he was with. One of the officers told Guthrie, “We know what you are….One of them labor boys.” The police asked him, “You don’t like trouble, do you, mister painter?…Ever talk to the boys about wages?” (Guthrie 237-38) Woody, being an honest man, just told them that he talked to others about all sorts of things. He didn’t have to be in a union to know what’s fair and unfair treatment of workers. The officers let him go. They were part of a system that didn’t want to change.
Woody, while hopping from town to town, would often be in the company of other poor whites. However, there were also blacks, asians, Native Americans, and hispanics. He found out that there really wasn’t much difference between people with nothing. A beating sun, above a farm, doesn’t care what one’s skin color is. Guthrie makes this clear in his song “Deportee”:
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. (“Plane Wreck”)
Guthrie’s choice of the phrase “not wanted” speaks volumes about his songs and how they came to be. In a large way, the hurtful conditions on wandering workers was an equalizer. Workers of all colors were making measly wages and struggling to survive.
Nevertheless, many of the whites grew up with racism instilled into them. Woody ran into this ugly societal issue, which was rampant in that era. After traveling through the thirties with all types of people, he’d stand up for non-whites. That’s not to say he never said anything insensitive himself, but that his views widened as he saw all the people that shared hardships. When Guthrie was on his way to California on a freight train, he found that one of the older men was racist. The man complained about having to ride in the same train car as a black boy and wanted to fight with him. Woody recalls that he led the boy away and told him, “Nobody else thinks like that goof. Hell, let ‘im go an’ find another car….They’ll run him out of every hole on th’ train….Ya cain’t help what ya cain’t help.” Another white man nearby, Brown, tells Woody, “You know I’ve run onto this skin trouble before….Hard to cure it after it gets started, too. I was born and raised in a country that’s got all kinds of diseases, and this skin trouble is the worst one of the lot.” Guthrie responded, “Bad, I got sick and tired of that kind of stuff when I was just a kid growing up at home….Like you can help what color you are” (221-22). Woody knew that no matter who was on the train, they were all headed for, hopefully, somewhere better. Each man, regardless of skin color, had a right to work. If they didn’t stand up for themselves and each other, no one else would. This mirrored the ideas of the labor unions of that time.
Woody Guthrie wrote over 1,000 songs, based on the America he knew, which said many things that needed to be said. From the Midwest, to the South, the West, and finally the East, Guthrie saw the good and the bad. He believed that things could get better if migrants and those like them stood up as one. He knew this included hispanics, who were treated differently by farm owners, even though they often did the same job as whites. He would be friendly towards black men on the trains, while some others looked on with contempt. Later, around the time of Pearl Harbor, he stood up for Japanese-Americans. When he wrote his most famous song “This Land Is Your Land”, he was talking about all Americans. Even though Guthrie faced many hardships, starting with his childhood years, he always believed things could get better. He believed that no matter the background of the men in the rail cars, the train was “bound for glory”.
by Aaron J. Schieding
(Originally written September 29th, 2015)
Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York: Plume, 1983. Print.
“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (also known as ‘Deportee’).” The Official Woody Guthrie Website. Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., 2015. Web. 26 Sep. 2015.