Book Review: Woody Guthrie: An American Radical


Woody Guthrie: An American Radical
by Will Kaufman
University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Was a big high wall there/ That tried to stop me;
A sign atop it said: ‘Private Property’.
But on the other side/ It didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me

In the annals of US folk culture, Woody Guthrie stands as both a father figure and an enigma. Composing biting songs of dissent simultaneous to allegories of our nation’s beauty, Guthrie has the distinction of being known today as a legend with a wide following, whereas in his own time he was followed by federal agents who viewed him as part of a folksinging conspiracy. Guthrie dedicated his life to fighting for the poor and working class but must be recalled as one who wandered through his responsibilities to the point of abandoning his first wife and children. While fighting for unions and against Jim Crow, he almost singlehandedly founded the modern protest song genre – but all too often sabotaged relevant components of it’s institutions with his propensity toward restlessness and infighting. The contradictions are maddening; Woody was deeply complex, shrouded in single-minded rebellion and a lifetime of folklore.

While historians of fairer heart than Will Kaufman may choose to focus on Guthrie’s populism and love of the land, in this well-paced and artfully composed biography, we are toured through the revolutionary core of the folk song revival and its leading exponent. The winding, multi-layered Left cultural movement of the 1930s and 40s grew from age-old folk songs before becoming infused with the radicalism of industrial toilers and the guiding hand of Marxism. It produced a relentless, daring body of work that not only protested the greed of capitalist exploitation but rang out in celebration of the workers’ pride. Woody Guthrie lived to create a repertoire exemplifying this fight for the common good and in order to do so thrust himself into the heart of organized labor, the early civil rights movement, the call for peace, the intensive battle against fascism and the struggle against right-wing oppression at home. Guthrie’s writing of both poetry and prose was prolific, almost obsessive, with his dissent nearly always worn proudly, just rude enough to be heard.

Woody Guthrie: American Radical opens with an introduction that offers some rationale for the drive toward Leftism Woody felt, exemplified by some of his song quotes and bits of prose, while also clarifying author Kaufman’s own journey through music and politics (Kaufman, in addition to being a university professor is also a singer and performing musician himself). Of Guthrie’s repertoire, Kaufman wrote: “His songs could have been sung anywhere from Camp Delt to Abu Gharib to the death-row cells of the Polunksky Unit in Texas…Instinctively I’d seized on Guthrie as a link to an almost forgotten America—perhaps an America never existed…”

With a tendency toward seeking out previously unseen lyrics and other rare Guthrie writings, Kaufman produces here a volume of great value to cultural workers and historians of both music and/or the Left. Most profoundly, Kaufman reels out the deep involvement Guthrie had with the Communist Party, initially in order to perform his song “Mr. Tom Mooney is Free,” written to commemorate the pardon of celebrated union activist Mooney who’d been wrongly imprisoned for over twenty years. And shortly thereafter met Will Geer with whom he would engage in much activism on behalf of migrant farmers in California.

Wonderful detail can be drawn from Kaufman’s account of this often cloudy period, particularly Guthrie’s connection to John Steinbeck and the fundraisers they engaged in together, especially ‘the Grapes of Wrath Benefit Concert’. And from the period song notebooks Kaufman examined in his research (he spent considerable time at the Woody Guthrie Archive in NY) one can find lyrics in which Guthrie reached for something often still out of grasp. Kaufman puts into focus the power of “This Land is Your Land” in its original phase: Guthrie’s song, initially called “God Blessed America for Me,” was composed during his anxiety-provoking cross-country trip to NY in the winter of 1939 as he contemplated the hungry and destitute migrants and the plight of a nation in the throes of depression. Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” somehow was all the rage. The hit record by Kate Smith blared from every jukebox and roadhouse but Guthrie saw in it not only a dangerous complacency but an even more dangerous blind patriotism.

Viewing Woody Guthrie as both a leader and a follower of the radical times in which he lived, Kaufman offers considerable background on other Communist cultural workers and cites the development of folksong within same. Woody’s devotion to the Party was conflicted at times and Kaufman offers a vision for Guthrie’s rationale about shifts in Party line in this period (i.e., hard-line to Popular Front and back). The presence of figures such as Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson, composer Hanns Eisler, writer Dashiell Hammett, poet Walter Lowenfels and of course the Almanac Singers is poignant. In Kaufman’s hands the deeply relevant topical song book ‘Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People’ – a collaboration of Guthrie, Lomax and Pete Seeger—comes to life in these pages and his statement that it’s “reality is its core of anticapitalist anger that translates into Guthrie’s explicit call for socialist revolution,” is not simply telling but unique in the realm of Guthrie biographers.

Woody’s interconnectedness with the CPUSA is clear throughout this biography, well beyond the realm of 1940. Following the fascist invasion of the Soviet Union and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Party activism increased widely and the battle against Hitler was the distinct call. Guthrie’s work on this Second Popular Front is well documented here, his radio broadcasts, journalism, and songs such as “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave”, as well as his struggle with fleeting success and periods out to sea with the Merchant Marines. Kaufman, too, found newspaper articles which offer a contemporary insight into the work of the Almanac Singers, particularly an account by ‘Daily Worker’ columnist Mike Quinn who described a downtown subway ride with the Almanacs as they performed Woody’s song “The Sinking of the Reuben James” for the riders, who soon joined in on the chorus, all too aware of the perils of servicemen from the morning headlines.

Kaufman states, as have most other historians, that Woody Guthrie was never a member of the Communist Party, instead something of a cultural attaché in the best of times, citing that Woody did not have the discipline to be accepted (this reviewer disputes this following contact with Almanac Singer Sis Cunningham in 1998 who stated that the group, shortly after her arrival in NY, went to CP headquarters together to officially join the Party). However he brings to light something quite novel: Woody’s response to the post-1945 split between the hardliners and the group standing by moderate leader Earl Browder who had dissolved the Party into a Communist Political Association as an overture to the Roosevelt Administration during the War. Kaufman demonstrates that Guthrie wholeheartedly sided with the movement to re-establish the Party proper. Woody’s letters illustrate his anger as well as, in the same period, his growing concern about the sharp rightward turn of the nation during the early Cold War. Kaufman walks the reader through the minefield of Guthrie’s encounters with a broken, splintered Left in light of HUAC, the Tenney Committee, a rapidly deteriorating labor movement and the Peekskill Riot (which Guthrie was present for – a vocal opponent of the neo-fascist mob which attacked the concert-goers).

The world within the pages of Woody Guthrie: American Radical begins to close in on Guthrie as he experiences this assault on civil liberties concurrent to the beginnings of Huntington’s Chorea. While one is challenged with such a vivid picture of debilitating illness, it is offered here with the backdrop of the later 1950s through the ‘60s, wherein Woody’s legend began to truly take hold. First-person accounts, snippets of his writings and his diminishing trips beyond institutional walls all bring to the facts an image that is multi-faceted. There is an account of Bob Dylan attempting to mold himself into the second coming, frighteningly incorporating Woody’s jittery, spastic movements into his act at Folk City (!) which fits nicely into the accounts of Guthrie the Myth traveling across the Atlantic and beyond. Some legends are born, some are made. And Guthrie’s legend was both. As the vehicle which brought us from Old Left to the New, his was also wholly necessary.

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  • John,

    I always love to read your work, this one didn't let me down.

    Thanks Comrade

    Posted by Red Grandad, 07/14/2011 10:00pm (13 years ago)

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