Portrait of a Populist
by Rob Collins | Oklahoma Gazette | June 2, 2004

Gazette Media, Inc.© 1999-2004, All Rights Reserved

Clad in a black suit and white wing-tipped shoes, a thin figure stood strumming his acoustic guitar in the scorching sun. A reverberating hush enveloped the Zoo Amphitheatre audience as fans anticipated what would follow the concert's opening song. For the second ditty of Bob Dylan's Oklahoma City concert July 6, 2000, the rock 'n' roll icon dusted off "Song to Woody." It was no coincidence that Dylan picked this particular song, an ode to the personal hero he had met so many years before.

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying, and it's hardly been born.

More than 40 years ago, Dylan penned those lyrics in a New York drugstore after meeting Woody Guthrie. Biographer Robert Shelton described Dylan as finding Woody to be "a suffering shell. Guthrie's hands quivered, his shoulders shook involuntarily, and he spoke only in thin, unintelligible rasps."

When Dylan searched out Guthrie in 1961, the Okemah native was suffering from Huntington's disease and had been institutionalized at the New Jersey State Hospital at Greystone Park. For Dylan - then known only as a University of Minnesota dropout named Robert Zimmerman - finding Woody was a chance for the undiscovered folksinger to pay homage to the prolific songwriter responsible for more than 1,200 songs, including such folk classics as "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "Do-Re-Mi" and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You."

Thirty-six years after meeting Oklahoma's most famous folksinger, Dylan still cited Guthrie as having the primary influence on his musical career. "I was there as a servant, to sing him his songs," Dylan said in a 1997 Mojo article. "That's all I did. I was a Woody Guthrie jukebox."

In Oklahoma in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Guthrie did not receive such a warm reception. Guy Logsdon, a Tulsa folklorist considered the foremost Guthrie scholar, said an Oklahoma City-based Communist Party watch group circulated Guthrie's writings and marked in red those deemed "Communist" during the McCarthyism of the Cold War era. "You had what I would call very conservative, right-wing Protestant groups down on Woody," Logsdon said.

"Ramblin' Man," the first definitive Guthrie biography written in nearly 25 years, chronicles Guthrie's populist ideals in meticulous detail. Author Ed Cray, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, is the first biographer to have access to more than 10,000 pages or poetry, diaries, journals and drawings from the Woody Guthrie Archives.

In 1967 - the year of Guthrie's death - the American Legion stopped a proposed Woody Guthrie Day in Okemah on the assumption that the native son was a Communist, according to Cray's research. When townspeople finally honored Guthrie with a presentation of his albums and books to the local library, "details of the program were kept secret so as not to gain undue publicity which might attract hordes of people to flood Okemah," according to organizer V.K. Chowning. These folks were described as "hippies" in a wire service story.

In "Ramblin' Man," Cray writes that the initial attempt to gift the Okemah library ceased when the militantly anti-Communist American Security Council perceived Guthrie's affiliations to be indicative of a man "who betrayed the conservatism of rural, east-central Oklahoma."

That kind of hateful scrutiny clashed with the worldwide acclaim bestowed upon Guthrie outside Oklahoma. In 1988, Guthrie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he earned a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards in 2000.

How could Guthrie, an artist described by Rolling Stone magazine as the most important American folk musician of all time, become the object of such scorn in his native state?

"I think there was a certain reluctance and a strong feeling in Okemah to not acknowledge their most famous son," Cray told the Oklahoma Gazette. "They said he was a Communist. Well, technically, he wasn't a Communist. Technically, he was a fellow traveler; he was sometimes in line with party doctrine and sometimes he wasn't.

"It's Oklahoma's loss if they put a political test on who they will appreciate or not appreciate, who they celebrate or not celebrate or who they will honor or not honor. That's not Americanism. That's no more than blacklist, and I think we've learned that blacklists are hateful things."

Nearly four decades after his death, Guthrie's portrait will soon hang at the Oklahoma Capitol. The Capitol Preservation Commission has approved a new oil painting by Charles Banks Wilson, the respected artist known for awe-inspiring portraits of famous Oklahomans that hang in the Capitol.

Wilson knew Guthrie in the early Forties when the artist was working for Collier's magazine. When Sen. Charles Ford, R-Tulsa, recently asked Wilson to paint one more piece for the Capitol, Wilson picked Guthrie. The 34-inch-by-22-inch oil painting is titled "This Land Was Made for You and Me."

"I never told Ford or the state people what I was doing," said Wilson, who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. "I wanted to do it 20 years ago, but I never could get the cooperation." Wilson, 85, requested two conditions: First and foremost, the Guthrie portrait must be installed in the Capitol rotunda alongside paintings of Will Rogers, Sequoyah, Robert S. Kerr and Jim Thorpe. Secondly, Wilson demands that all funds donated for the piece must go toward Huntington's disease medical research.

"When Ford came over, he was excited about it as most people seem to be," Wilson said of revealing the Guthrie portrait. "But Ford said, 'I don't know whether I can get the money for this. Well, he's controversial, you know.'

"I said, 'Well, I hope he's controversial because those are the kind of people who get things done. Wasn't Robert Kerr pretty controversial?'"


For nearly half a century, the Okemah native has been erroneously dubbed a Communist and has been criticized for openly supporting unions. However, few comprehend how Oklahoma's shifting political landscape in the early Teens and Twenties shaped Guthrie's ideology.

To understand Guthrie's political beliefs, one must trace back to his formative years in Okfuskee County. Contrary to popular belief, Guthrie was not raised in poverty but was, in fact, the son of a middle-class real estate agent, Cray said. Woody's father, Charley Edward Guthrie, served as court clerk after moving his bride and children to Okemah in April 1907. Charley earned accolades from the local newspaper, which described him as a citizen of "irreproachable private life."

Giving up his general store gig, Charley opted for a career in real estate, Cray said. Woody's father, a registered Democrat, began preaching against the evils of the Socialist Party and Eugene V. Debs.

At the time of Oklahoma's birth, the agriculture and livestock industries tugged at the burgeoning state that had adopted the official motto of Labor omnia vincit (English translation: "Labor conquers all things"). Although southern Democrats controlled the first legislatures and Oklahoma's constitutional convention, the popularity of the Socialist Party increased among the poverty-stricken on the prairie. According to Cray, the state's Socialist Party grew until Oklahoma had the largest membership of any state in the union.

To combat this invading ideology ‹ and to keep the Socialists from taking away votes from Democratic presidential nominee Woodrow Wilson ‹ Charley fired several salvos. According to "Ramblin' Man," letters sent to the Okemah Ledger's editor circa 1911 included topics such as "Free Love the Fixed Aim of Socialism," "Socialism the Enemy of Christian Religion" and "Socialism Guards Secret Philosophy."

A dozen days after Wilson earned the Democratic presidential nomination, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born to Charley and Nora Belle Guthrie on July 14, 1912. During that same year, Logsdon said an African-American activist recruited blacks to sell everything and travel by ship back to Liberia in an event dubbed the "Chief Sam Movement." African-American citizens camped in the all-black town of Boley in Okfuskee County.

"Remember, in 1921 Tulsa had a huge race riot," Cray said. "It wasn't the blacks who were revolting; it was blacks who were victimized. And Woody used the word 'nigger' as a kid ‹ that was just standard fare. Now it wasn't a pejorative, really. Woody didn't see it, but there was a lynching in Boley.

"I have no doubt that Woody grew up with this kind of background (of racism), and it's a tribute to him that he overcame it." Other diverse influences included Okemah being located on Creek Indian land. "Woody definitely changed directions because he was in a different atmosphere," Logsdon said.

Something else was brewing on the prairie. Tenant farmers near Okfuskee County planned to storm Washington, D.C., to take back the government at a time when Socialists opposed World War I and encouraged resistance to the draft, according to Logsdon. During the summer of 1917, agitators responsible for rousing the "Green Corn Rebellion" in Oklahoma were influenced by a "strong strain of socialism," author O.A. Hilton wrote in "Chronicles of Oklahoma."

In "Ramblin' Man," Cray chronicled this "last spasm of prairie radicalism" as a ragtag band of armed farmers that gathered south of Okemah for the implausible march. These protesters viewed World War I as a "rich man's war, poor man's fight."

During his father's failed bid for Oklahoma's corporation commissioner post, Cray said, young Woody learned "short speeches to say standing up in the wagon, cussing the Socialists, running the Republicans into the ground and bragging on the Democrats."

"I certainly think that since Woody even helped his dad campaign for local office, that Woody was exposed to politics in a general sense," Cray said. "He realized that politics was sort of part of the lifeblood of any community.

"(Woody) was intensely optimistic. That's something he got from his father. And in a kind of perverse way, it led him to leave his father's yellow-dog Democrat voting to move leftward because it was the Left ‹ and being quite frank, the Communist Left mostly ‹ that was advocating the kind of things that Woody cared most about, such as race relations, equal or fair redistribution of income. These are things that were close to Woody. *They definitely weren't (Democratic ideals at that time). They had to push for it. It was this sense of optimism that led Woody to believe that things could be improved."

Cray described two forms of socialism on the Great Plains: The first ideology -an atheistic, hard-line brand of Marxist thought - immigrated into the region from Europe. The second view fused the dogma of shared wealth with the prophetic Protestant theology of rural America.

"The leadership in Oklahoma was free of the dogma of the Eastern Seaboard," said Cray, noting that Woody would write "all" when asked his religion. "It was adaptive -just as the Communist Party of California was free of the dogma and rigidity of the Communist Party of New York.

"Woody was doing that virtually unique thing that happened in the South, and that was the ability of people, especially in Oklahoma, to combine so-called godless socialism with Christianity. And any number of leaders of the Socialist Party in the 20th century in Oklahoma were preachers."

Was Guthrie a Christian?

"I really mean a kind of sense that Christ would feed the poor," Cray said. "I don't mean backwoods Baptist."

In the introduction of Guthrie's "Bound for Glory," fellow folkie Pete Seeger wrote: "In the desperate early Depression years, (Woody) developed a religious view of Christ the Great Revolutionary."

Throughout his career, Guthrie railed against greed and evil and espoused the basic principles of Christianity. Logsdon references Matthew 19:24, which says, "It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God."

"Basically, I think that was Woody's philosophy," Logsdon said of the biblical passage. "He was for people down and out and trying to help them. He believed in unions. Most people don't nowadays, but I guarantee you without labor unions there would have been no middle class in this country. I don't think the wealthy of the 19th century were concerned about the middle class."


Following the Okie dust bowl migration to California in the Thirties, Guthrie sympathized with the displaced and disdained laborers and told of their suffering through song.

"Ramblin' Man" details Guthrie's first brush with the Communist Party in Los Angeles in January 1939. Radical radio commentator Ed Robbin invited him to perform at a victory rally to sing his new song about Tom Mooney, a labor martyr recently granted an unconditional pardon. Woody's response was, "Sure, why not?"

Robbin replied that the Communist Party sponsored the meeting and it was a left-wing gathering.

"Left wing, right wing, chicken wing -it's all the same to me," Guthrie said with a shrug. "I sing my songs wherever I can sing 'em."

Almost overnight, Cray wrote that the bushy-haired balladeer found refuge at Robbin's home. Performance bookings were few and far between. Although Woody was famous among Okies, he was a complete unknown among California's Communists. Robbin claimed that Guthrie did not care much for political theory and was basically "on the side of the poor*ever and always." And like the majority of Socialists living in pre-statehood plains of Oklahoma, Woody was a Christian at heart. "I seldom worship in or around churches but always had a deep love for people who go there," Guthrie wrote.

Was Guthrie a member of the Communist Party? Cray maintains Guthrie never joined. Guthrie's first wife, Mary Jennings, also insisted her husband didn't join the Communist Party because the members wouldn't want him. Woody's brother, George, who lived briefly with Woody and Mary, agreed. "I never heard him being in any type of organization or anything like that." Likewise, Robbin considered Guthrie a poor recruit.

"Woody never was a party member because he was always considered too eccentric by the party apparatus," said Will Geer, the blacklisted actor who later portrayed Zebulon Walton in the popular television series "The Waltons."

In the "Ramblin' Man" biography, Cray maintains that personal experience lured Guthrie to communism more than theory.

"I made ever thing except money an lost ever thing but my debts," Guthrie wrote. "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life."

Dismissing charges of being a Communist, Guthrie wrote in September 1940 that "I ain't a member of any earthly organization."

Logsdon also maintains that Guthrie was not a Communist.

"Woody was an individualist who looked at everything and came up with his own individual thoughts, theories and opinions," Logsdon said. "And that's what the United States of America should be. But unfortunately, we live in an atmosphere somewhat opposed to that -no political thoughts involved."

In Cray's own words, Guthrie could best be described as a "Christian Socialist." Cray wrote that Guthrie's "intensely personal synthesis of primitive Christianity and nondoctrinaire communism" was taking shape by the spring of 1941.

"He was first the American patriot, then the party loyalist," Cray wrote. "During the war, Guthrie had no trouble reconciling the two; American patriot and American Communist were one in the same."

Guthrie hated fascism and served in the Merchant Marine and Army during World War II. "The guy shipped out three times as a merchant mariner, his ship hit a mine once and was sunk, and a second time it was torpedoed," Cray said. "He lost two out of the three ships that he was on. He sailed as a mess man - Woody Guthrie cleaning pots and pans. I think that's a great measure of his patriotism. It's a helluva lot more than anybody in the White House right now did."


When Guthrie was facing a draft notice in Christmas 1944, the FBI lifted his seaman's papers after Guthrie penned a piece for the Sunday Worker, the weekend edition of the Communist Daily Worker. According to Cray, the name "Woodrow Wilson Guthrie" appeared on a blacklist.

Cray claims the FBI maintained an "internal security" file on Guthrie starting June 4, 1941, after a "confidential informant" labeled Woody as a Communist. The spotty file through the war consisted of two clips from the Daily Worker and a shipmate's accusation that Guthrie "followed the Communist Party line in that (he was) very pro-Russian and advocated interracial marriage."

How does Cray characterize the FBI file on Guthrie? "A piece of shit," Cray said.

"What a waste of taxpayers' money. First of all, it contained crap. One informant said Woody was a member of a Communist Party sabotage gang. When the revolution came, Woody was going to throw himself into the machinery of General Motors? Just bullshit.

"They followed him around, they took license plate numbers at meetings, they clipped newspapers and put it in the file. Most of it was public knowledge anyway."

Likewise, Logsdon describes the FBI report on Guthrie as inconsequential. "The FBI file had very little in it," Logsdon said. "You would think it would be inches thick the way people were reacting, but it was just a few pages."

In a report of the California Senate's Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities, Guthrie was dubbed a Communist and described as "Joe Stalin's mouthpiece," according to Cray's book. Harvey Matusow, a former volunteer for the progressive songwriters' union People's Songs, publicly named Guthrie in testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, calling him "a member of the cultural division of the Communist Party, and he had also been a member of the Brighton section of the party in Brooklyn."

However, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie, maintained that Guthrie was not welcome because he didn't wish to follow the party line while the couple was living on the East Coast, according to Cray's research. "You couldn't tell Woody what to think," Marjorie said. "And so we were not members of the party in Coney Island."

Cray maintains the FBI and the Un-American Activities Committee were not particularly concerned with Guthrie because of his illness.

"They removed him from their watch list," Cray said. "It was not necessarily a blacklist. Woody was never blacklisted because he went into the hospital too soon."


Fellow Oklahoman Logsdon remembers a time when certain citizens did not want the name Woody Guthrie mentioned. The folklorist endured harassment for declaring the Okemah native wrote "Oklahoma Hills," a country-and-western standard cousin Jack Guthrie recorded.

"I got nasty phone calls and letters from people saying, 'No, Jack Guthrie, his cousin, wrote it.'" Logsdon said. "Which is not true." Penned by Guthrie in California in 1937, "Oklahoma Hills" became the Sooner State's official folk song in 2001.

Logsdon said the tide is turning. "It's been slow but sure," Logsdon said. "As times have changed, people are changing. The Cold War is over.

"People are beginning to realize that Woody was Oklahoma's most talented native son. He wrote more, did more and had more influence in basically a 17-year period of creativity. How many people have done all of that? None. Woody was talented, he was controversial, but people have learned to live with controversy now."

And a painting of Guthrie, who was once the target of an Oklahoma blacklist, will hang in the Capitol's fourth-floor rotunda just left of Will Rogers. Sen. Ford said that after he secures sponsorship for the Guthrie portrait, the Tulsa Republican plans to have Wilson's piece dedicated during the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which is slated for July 14-18 in Okemah.

"There will be people who will feel that it's a little controversial, but I think that (Woody Guthrie) is the history of that period of time in Oklahoma and certainly one who is nationally prominent and certainly deserves a position in the rotunda," Ford said.

Guthrie is a polemic political figure, but Wilson said that did not stop him from jumping at the opportunity to paint Woody. "As the years have gone by, I have always thought that Woody Guthrie just wasn't appreciated like he should have been," Wilson said.

"It just seems like we love to tear down our heroes in America, don't we?" Wilson said he considers Guthrie a true American poet. "Woody ought to be out there where the average old boy can see it," Wilson said.

"I think a Woody Guthrie painting is important, and he should have that kind of tribute. And I bet you if they put this in the Capitol, they'll have more people coming to see this picture of Woody Guthrie than anything that I've done and maybe anything anybody else has done."

Gazette Media, Inc. © 1999-2004, All Rights Reserved


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