Friday, July 14, 2017

Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie! (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967)

As we’re in the midst of summer, probably most of us would rather listen to the songs than read what follows, all the same, I’m hoping there are a few hardy (perhaps even ‘communist’) souls that can’t resist reading something about the life and work of Guthrie.
In Michael Denning’s groundbreaking and provocative book, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso, 2010 ed.), Woody Guthrie (along with Carlos Bulosan and Ernesto Galarza) is invoked to exemplify a compelling alternative to the Popular Front’s “grapes of wrath” (the ‘Okie exodus’) narrative of migrant agricultural workers in California. Guthrie, Bulosan and Galarza together provide us with a “less visible attempt of farmworkers to represent themselves politically and aesthetically.” As Denning writes, the former narrative, which became part of American mass culture, “has always been taken as an emblem of depression-era populism, embodying the ‘documentary impulse’ of representing ‘the people.’” Denning explains precisely how (e.g., through novels and film) and why the “grapes of wrath” narrative gained its conspicuous popularity, one reason owing to its focus on  “white Protestant ‘plain people.’”
Let’s take an all-too-brief look, with Denning, at how Guthrie gives us a migrant narrative in which the subjects are more or less representing themselves (or exercising their agency), rather than their work and lives being represented (i.e., documented) by others. After making his way to California in the mid-1930s as an itinerant musician and sign painter, Guthrie and his brother Jack landed a radio show in Los Angeles that began with “cowboy songs” and was soon transformed into a
“mixture of old-time ‘hillbilly’ songs, downhome philosophy, and Dust Bowl ballads [that] became popular among the California migrant workers. He met the young Communists who were organizing the farmworkers, including Will Geer, an actor who had come out of the workers theater movement. Joining Geer’s troupe of four, Folksay, Guthrie sang and performed skits at migrant camps and picket lines throughout the San Joaquin Valley. By May 1939, he was writing a column of humor, cartoons, and song lyrics, ‘Woody Sez,’ for the People’s World [‘People’s World came about when the Daily Worker, the east coast Communist Party USA daily newspaper, which was founded in 1924, and the Communist Party USA’s west coast daily newspaper, The Daily People’s World, merged to become People’s Weekly World.’], and in October 1939 Guthrie and Geer led a group of artists to support the strikers in the Madera County cotton strike.”
Soon thereafter, Guthrie ventured to New York
“and became part of the movement culture of the Popular Front. On 3 March 1940, he appeared at one of the earliest Popular Front folk-music recitals: the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ benefit for the Steinbeck committee, which features ‘American Ballad Singers and Folk Dancers,’ including Aunt Molly Jackson, Will Geer, Leadbelly, and the Golden Gate Quartet. Guthrie also forged connections with Popular Front figures in the New Deal state and the culture industries. Later in March, he was recorded by the radical folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress archives. In April, he appeared on Norman Corwin’s network radio show, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ (which had featured [Paul] Robeson’s ‘Ballad for Americans’), singing ‘Do Re Mi.’ In May 1940, Guthrie recorded the classic Dust Bowl Ballads, a song cycle based on the Dust Bowl migration, for RCA Victor.”
Denning proceeds to explain how the Dust Bowl Ballads serve as a counterpoint to the Grapes of Wrath, with a wonderful introduction to and analysis of several songs. We thus learn from Denning that,
“[l]ike many of the migrants, Guthrie had never been comfortable with the word ‘Okie,’ which was, after all, used as a slur and an insult. He never uses the work in the songs of the Dust Bowl Ballads, and his distance from the word can be seen in his chains of substitutions: ‘Talking about Okie songs, or Arkie songs, or just plain old songs of the Migratious Trail,’ he writes in Direction; I looked into the lost and hungry face of several hundred thousand Oakies, Arkies, Texies, Mexies, Chinees, Japees, Dixies, and even a lot of New Yorkies,’ he quips in the liner notes. He was equally uncomfortable with the name ‘Dust Bowl refugee’ ….”
The “migrant narrative,” concludes Denning, exemplified in the works of Guthrie, Carlos Bulosan, and Ernesto Galarza, “became one of the forms that ‘proletarian literature’ took in the United States, providing a structure by which plebian artists, intellectuals, and organizers could represent their world.” The means and media, as it were, of this relatively “direct” or unmediated collective self-representation of the migrant world, is in contrast to the “documentary” form of representation common to the well-known works of John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, and Carey McWilliams (among others):
“The representation of the ‘grapes of wrath’ by the artists and intellectuals of the Popular Front was a complex formation. For the cultural front of California’s agricultural valleys included both the artists and intellectuals who came to the fields and produced the powerful representations that gripped the nation in 1939 and 1940—figures like Lange, Taylor, Steinbeck, and McWilliams—and the artists and intellectuals who emerged from the struggle in those fields—figures like Guthrie, Bulosan, and Galarza.* Cultural historians have tended to focus on the first group of figures, precisely because the cultural politics of the movement and of the cultural apparatuses accented their contributions. As a result, the ‘documentary’ stance of these artists and intellectuals has often seemed to characterize the aesthetic ideologies of the cultural front generally. The work of the second group is often overlooked because it rarely coincides with moments of public attention, it rarely attempts to serve as a public document of a social condition, and it depends on for its cultural success on the fate of its community.”
In Guthrie’s case, he
“had a brief celebrity in 1940 as the Dust Bowl balladeer, appearing on network radio, recorded by Victor; though he never achieved the commercial success of the western swing bands of Bob Wills or Spade Cooley, he was part of the musical culture of the Southwest. Nevertheless, despite the legacy of Oklahoma socialism, Guthrie’s Popular Front communism did not take hold among the white immigrants from the Southwest; their populism was what James Gregory has called ‘plain-folk Americanism.’ With the defeat of the CIO’s [Congress of Industrial Organizations] UCAPAWA [United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America], Guthrie left the organizing campaigns of the California fields and found his primary audiences in the movement culture of New York’s Popular Front and the CIO unions of the Northeast and Midwest. When Guthrie crossed the country with the Almanac singers in the summer of 1941, they sang union songs for the Transport Workers in New York, at a labor rally in Philadelphia, at the NMU’s [National Miners Union] convention in Cleveland, for striking furworkers in Cicero, at a Popular Front theater in Chicago and a CIO picnic in Milwaukee, for an International Harvester picket line in Minneapolis, ending with the longshoremen in San Francisco. Guthrie had reconstructed himself as a CIO singer. But the collapse of the CIO’s left-wing movement culture in the face of the anti-Communist purge of the unions coincided with the onset of Guthrie’s debilitating illness.”
* For an introduction to the historic and political context of that struggle, the following should suffice:
  • Daniel, Cletus. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941 (University of California Press, 1981). 
  • Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers (University of Nebraska Press, 1982).
  •  Flores, Lori A. Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale University Press, 2016). 
  • Loftis, Anne. Witnesses to the Struggle: Imaging the 1930s California Labor Movement (University of Nevada Press, 1998).


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