The Magazine

Bound for Pulp

Alas, the Woody Guthrie industry unearths a novel.

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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A decade-and-a-half later, when young musicians in Greenwich Village began popularizing folk music as a form of social protest, Guthrie became the movement’s muse. And no one venerated the man from Okfuskee more than Bob Dylan, who brought Guthrie into the mainstream. One of Dylan’s earliest songs, “Song to Woody,” emulated the Guthrie style: acoustic guitar, alternatively picked and strummed; out-of-tune vocals; lyrics about a “funny old world” that “seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn.” “Song to Woody” was written in 1962, and by the time Guthrie died in 1967, at 55 after a long battle with Huntington’s disease, he had long since become the elder statesman of folk-protest music.

Guthrie’s legend, and the tributes to that legend, have only grown. Three months after his death, Guthrie was celebrated with a memorial concert in Carnegie Hall. Hal Ashby’s film Bound for Glory (1976) features David Carradine as a highly romanticized Guthrie. Rock musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine cite him as an influence. In the late 1990s, the left-wing British folk singer Billy Bragg and the American alternative rock band Wilco teamed up to release two albums of songs featuring unpublished Guthrie lyrics set to original music. In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service put Woody Guthrie on a 32-cent stamp.

Of course, Guthrie has also inspired academic research, including the life’s work of Will Kaufman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire. Kaufman has written several books on his hero and even performs Guthrie songs as part of a traveling lecture series. In 2011, with a grant from the Woody Guthrie Foundation, Kaufman published Woody Guthrie, American Radical, which sought to “reclaim” Guthrie from his image as a folk figure in the American tradition to the political radical he really was. Kaufman wrote that he had taken “pleasure in imagining how many right-wing hawks might have licked [Guthrie’s] backside on a U.S. postage stamp.” 

It’s a funny notion, given that most Americans likely think of Woody Guthrie as an “aw-shucks” Okie who sang folk tunes in a Norman Rockwell tableau. They can, perhaps, be forgiven for not realizing that Woody Guthrie was an avowed Communist who dreamed of the end of a capitalist system that had dealt his fellow plainsmen a bad hand. They can be forgiven their ignorance of his admiration for Stalin. They can even forgive Woody Guthrie lyrics such as these:

If I was President Roosevelt

I’d make groceries free—

I’d give away new Stetson hats,

And let the whiskey be.

I’d pass out suits of clothing

At least three times a week—

And shoot the first big oil man

That killed the fishing creek.

Less forgivable is Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp’s deceptive praise of Guthrie as a “fulfiller of dreams,” who deserves a “place among the immortal figures of American letters.”

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.