Will Kaufman. Woody Guthrie, American Radical.
In Woody Guthrie, American Radical, Will Kaufman provides an interesting and detailed political biography of Guthrie. His work is a stunning accomplishment and the first sustained monograph on Guthrie's political involvements, opinions, and impacts. Although both Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Biography (1980) and Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man (2004) give proportionate accounts of Guthrie's sociopolitical aspects, Kaufman rightly sees a place for a dedicated political study of this most political of personalities: "The two major biographies ... certainly do not ignore Guthrie's political journey; but it is a thread often disappearing into the epic tales of rambling and womanizing and the Greek tragedy of the voice, body, and life gradually lost to the grim reaper of Huntington's disease. An entire book devoted to the radical Guthrie had yet to be written: a book about a political awakening and its aftermath; a book that would uncover and reclaim the obsessive thinker and fitful strategist practically buried in the romantic celebrations of the Dust Bowl Troubadour" (xx-xxi).
In chapter I, "Awakenings," Kaufman provides the political background to Guthrie's early years, focusing on Oklahoma's radical and socialist traditions before and after its elevation to statehood in 1907, through Guthrie's birth year of 1912 and migration to Texas and then California, up to his departure for New York in 1940. Given the depth of research by Klein and Cray, much of this early information has been well covered in the biographies. However, Kaufman's revelation of Gutbrie's ambivalence toward Roosevelt's New Deal provides new insights into his California years. Kaufman points out that Guthrie "sang--with growing hostility--about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal" and states that his "Woody Sez" column in the Communist People's World "had become noticeably anti-Roosevelt by late 1939" (21). Although Guthrie did acknowledge Roosevelt as the "captain" of the Democratic ship sailing Culbert Olson into office during the 1938 campaign for governor of California in his song "Roosevelt-Olson," Kaufman sees Guthrie's shift in attitude against Roosevelt as tied to his Communist sympathies: "Clearly, one thing that had happened between the generosity of 1938 and the hardening of 1939 was the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) and its closest fellow travelers had never warmed to Roosevelt in the first place, in spite of the New Deal reforms.... Now, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, any of Roosevelt's menacing gestures toward Germany must logically extend to the Soviet Union" (23).
In chapter 2, "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People," Kaufman traces Guthrie's radical development during his first year in New York, 1940. In addition to an abundance of radio appearances, Guthrie pressed his first discs with the release of Library of Congress Recordings and Dust Bowl Ballads, and Kaufman enlightens us about both the development of the Guthrie "pose"-his self-representation as an "authentic Okie"--and his wisening to the tolerance levels of the commercial music industry (both recorded and broadcast). As Kaufman has it, "Guthrie's recordings for [Alan] Lomax--reissued under the title Library of Congress Recordings--are early case studies in the negotiation of the folksy Guthrie myth, on the one hand, and Guthrie's growing political radicalism on the other" (39). Nonetheless, given the political violence contained within Guthrie's printed songbooks and lyrical manuscripts, he was measured in the degree of socialist outspokenness he permitted to be recorded: "Taken together, the Library of Congress Recordings and Dust Bowl Ballads are both exercises in insinuation, soft-pedalling the political agitation to which Guthrie was certainly committed upon his arrival in New York" (43).
In chapter 3, "Almanac Days," Kaufman traces Guthrie's involvement with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and his "flip-flopping" with the Almanac Singers. Kaufman's account of Guthrie's BPA work is important for its corrective nature. Traditionally, Guthrie scholars have presented the folk singer's involvement with the Pacific Northwest federal dam-building project as universally praising. Guthrie was clearly taken by the power of human intervention in nature and the benefits that such engineering feats could bestow upon the regional economy. However, through investigating Guthrie's notebooks and manuscripts from 1941 alongside the Columbia River recordings he subsequently made, Kaufman reveals an ambivalence in Guthrie's attitude. With the BPA, Guthrie experienced at firsthand the American industrial workforce at their tools and the power contained in and expressed by that workforce in useful and necessary production. But Kaufman also brings to light Guthrie's concerns about those on the margins of the BPA, existing just outside its catchment area and working the lands beyond the new irrigation and electrification linkups. Although Guthrie did record "End of My Line," with lyrics such as "Lectric lights is mighty fine,/If you're hooked on to the power line" and "No, there ain't no country worth a dime,/If I'm just a mile from the end o' the line," the vast bulk of his recordings following his time with the BPA are adulatory and affirming of the need for dam building and other major federal interventions to modernize the United States and overcome the economic depression and the threat from fascism at home and abroad. But the unpublished and unrecorded material reveals a counterbalance, with Guthrie equating the disappointments of agricultural migrants in Washington State and Oregon with those of California, where the "Okies" and "Arkies" traveled on the promise of plentiful work only to find job queues, low wages, insanitary living conditions, and hostility from the media, the state government, and the law enforcement agencies. As Kaufman has it, "There were thus two different stories now being told: a rosy one for the workers who had abandoned the land to head for flush times in the war factories, and another, more bitter one for those who were determined to remain on the land" (62). Even for the industrial labor force Guthrie harbors concern, for the initial prosperity was impacting worker solidarity: "As Guthrie diverted his eyes from the awesome grandeur of the Grand Coulee Dam to the state of organized labor in the Pacific Northwest, he was not filled with confidence. He wrote to [Millard] Lampell: "Portland is a pretty poor union town, full of factional strife" (63).
With the end of his month-long contract with the BPA, Guthrie returned to New York and joined Pete Seeger and others as part of the Almanac Singers. The Almanacs had already recorded a number of songs condemning the Roosevelt administration for its Lend-Lease aid to Britain during the early years of World War II. Such aid was considered a first step along the slippery slope of American intervention in the war, and as 1939 to 1941 was the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Communist-sympathizing Almanacs toed the Moscow line and urged American isolationism (uncomfortable bedfellows with such Nazi sympathizers as Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin). With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, however, the Almanacs began to shift and unleashed a quantity of anti-Nazi songs, which included direct attacks on the likes of Lindbergh and Coughlin, as well as Adolf Hitler himself. By the year's end, Guthrie could still pen an antiwar song, "The Sinking of the Reuben James," though by then he was a patriot, no longer attacking Roosevelt and isolationism. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Almanacs completed their about-turn, and patriotic, interventionist songs ensued alongside labor union songs (the two issues, of course, being coterminous, as "I'm a union man in a union war, it's a union world I'm fighting for," according to Guthrie in "There's a Better World a-Coming").
In chapter 4, "Union War," Kaufman continues his exploration of Guthrie's and the Almanac Singers' "flip-flopping" during World War II. According to Kaufman, Guthrie felt no embarrassment regarding the about-turns made by the Communist Left over its stance on the war. Rather, "in Guthrie's reading, the Almanacs' most recent turnabout--far from signaling a failure of nerve or a craven jump to the Party's tune--was a principled stance anchored in fidelity and solidarity" (83). As history changed (even over so short a space of time), so one could legitimately alter one's position. While Guthrie toed the Communist line, he did so not as a mechanical apparatchik but on the basis that the party's shifts were sensible shifts. Hence, "more than anything, these songs [which he penned for the Almanacs, recorded or not] reveal Guthrie fashioning a conception of the war that would, above all else, embrace the major aims of the American communist movement: antifascism, anticapitalism, anti-imperialism, and international labor solidarity. The war, as he came to see it, would provide the logistics and the battleground for 'both armies now doing such loud marchings, the going capitalist, and the coming communist.' His strategy was to devise a narrative that could equate the Soviet struggle with that of the American workers" (91). If Guthrie's songwriting embraced "antifascism, anticapitalism, anti-imperialism, and international labor solidarity," these themes were not all equally popular with the Almanacs' listenership; "the Almanacs' greatest popular success [occurred] when they reluctantly narrowed their attention to the war effort. It was as war propagandists that they won their widest audience," according to Kaufman, "and it was as war propagandists that they lost it, helped along by the red-baiting press" (85-86).
As well as churning out new songs for the war effort, Guthrie revised some of his earlier efforts to reflect his new commitments, in some instances (as noted earlier regarding the Columbia River recordings) rewriting history for the changed times:
He turned his first Dust Bowl ballad, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," into a wartime fable of a young man marching off to fight "Fascists in day time, mosquitos at night." The song "Lindbergh," which had been excoriating the isolationists and America First at the Almanac hoot when Pearl Harbor was attacked, had a new crime hastily written into it: "Hitler said to Lindy, 'Stall "em all you can. /We're gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.'" The Columbia River anthems were revised unambiguously to beef up the efforts on behalf of "Uncle Sam," and Guthrie proclaimed "I'll Fight for the USA" explicitly on behalf of the Almanacs. (93-94)
According to Kaufman, the bombing of Pearl Harbor provoked a vengeful desire for blood in Guthrie that was absent in all his earlier writings, and "the fact that this attack came at the hands of the same fascism he had explicitly linked to the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants in California made the prospect of vengeance all the more sweet" (97). To Guthrie, "the enemy in this union war was an undifferentiated army of thugs recruited from the death camps and battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, from beneath the lynching trees of the American South, from the barbed-wire perimeters of the Californian fruit fields, and from the shadowy offices of factory bosses everywhere" (103). Thus the fight against fascism took on both a military and a militant labor guise in Guthrie's lyrics and unified the war of soldiers abroad with that of proletarians at home.
In chapter 5, "Lonesome Radical Soul," Kaufman recounts the end of World War II and Guthrie's sense that the war had achieved little for freedom and democracy in the United States: "In the lull between the German and Japanese surrenders, Guthrie confessed to Moses Asch his decreasing certainty over why his war had been fought at all, given the place where he and the country had arrived and what direction they appeared to be going" (112). Indeed, Guthrie's pro-war zeal took a final "flip-flop" in 1945, as the terrible potential of modern warfare was unleashed: "The atomic bomb had devastated Guthrie's moral landscape just as surely as it had devastated Japan, inaugurating his transformation--while still in army uniform--into the antiwar activist that he would remain for the rest of his life" (113). For Guthrie, the postwar era left him artistically and politically isolated, the reconstituted Communist Party being his only solace, and within that organization, he held out on the orthodox, Stalinist wing: "The C[ommunist] P[olitical] A[ssociation] had been dissolved and the CPUSA formally reconstituted, with its leader, Browder, brutally expelled from the Party in 1946 and replaced by the hard-line William Z. Foster. This fatal rear-guard action was supported by the Party's staunchest defenders, including Guthrie" (129).
In chapter 6, "Long Road to Peekskill," Kaufman traces Guthrie's emerging antiracist awareness through his childhood and Dust Bowl migrations to his career on radio, his war service, and his postwar antifascist crusade. As Kaufman points out, Guthrie's childhood Oklahoma contained deep racial division, Jim Crow segregation, and Ku Klux Klan tyranny. Although never involved in organized racism, Guthrie played out a passive racism in his notebook lyrics and broadcast performances of the 1930s, finally being taken to task by an African American listener for singing "Run, Nigger, Run" on a Los Angeles radio show in 1937. Guthrie was stung by the listener's sensitivity and made profuse on-air apologies, tearing out racist songs from his songbooks as he spoke. Kaufman shows this incident as being epiphanic, with Guthrie moving from a rejection of racist songs to active campaigning for unsegregated labor unions and troopships and widespread performances at civil rights concerts. His activism peaked in 1949 when he appeared at the Peekskill civil rights concert starring Paul Robeson. The concert, having first been postponed, was followed by racist and fascist attacks from opponents who objected to Robeson's presence following his uttered solidarity with the Soviet Union. Racist and anti-Semitic chanting was accompanied by stone throwing and other forms of attack on performers and audience alike, which Guthrie witnessed in horror. Guthrie was as appalled by the racism as he was heartened by the racial solidarity of the liberal enthusiasts. Kaufman sums up the event, in relation to Guthrie's life, thus:
For Guthrie, Peekskill was as important a personal milestone as it was a political one. Like the other witnesses who had held the line at Lakeland Acres and Hollow Brook, he had knowingly put himself in harm's way to stand up to terror in the name of racial solidarity and antifascism. He had by then traveled a long road from the casual, thoughtless racism of his youth, having been painfully educated into a capacity for greater wisdom and racial empathy. In the process, his journey--a virtual bildungsroman in itself had proved something uplifting. Racists are not born, but made; and they can be unmade. (165)
In chapter 7, "The Last Free Place in America," Kaufman provides an account of Guthrie's final years, as Huntington's disease gripped him and he lost the ability to perform and ultimately write. While colleagues throughout the folk sector either were blacklisted or exiled or gave names to Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, Guthrie remained unscathed (though his FBI file did burgeon). With his permanent hospitalization in 1953, he became an untouchable even to the witch-hunters and claimed to be living in the only free part of the United States: "Out there, if you guys say you're communists, they'll put you in jail. But in here, I can get up there and say I'm a communist and all they'll say is 'Ah, he's crazy'" (181).
In "Conclusion: The Miners and the Mill," Kaufman gives a potted history of Guthrie's radical legacy, from the Weavers in the 1950s to the folk revivalists of the 1960s (Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, etc.) to the recordings of Guthrie's manuscript lyrics by the likes of Billy Bragg and Wilco, the Klezmatics, and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel in the 1990s and after. Kaufman's study is an unfaltering history of Guthrie's political development and legacy and is a vital source for students of American radicalism, the New Deal, and the Great Depression. Indeed, with the two Guthrie biographies and the recent publication of my The Life, Music, and Thought of Woody Guthrie (to which Kaufman contributed), Kaufman has added a valuable book to what may become the field of "Guthrieology" (to use Jorge Arevalo Mateus's expression).
John S. Partington, Reading, England