Dave Powell

Part Four: From California to the New York Island (1940-41)

Nick Hayes, in Woody Guthrie & The Dust Bowl Ballads, chronicles Woody Guthrie’s hard trip east in the winter of 1939-40 by imagining a dream Woody might have had while riding the rails on his way to St. Louis. It’s a long, beautiful, and expressive piece of art, one that reflects the longing Woody may have felt for that infamous trip to the Chisos Mountains with Charley, Roy, and Uncle Jeff when Woody was younger. More than that, it provides some powerful context for Woody’s seething anger at the ubiquity of Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s hit song “God Bless America,” which was blanketing the airwaves everywhere Woody went. Legend has it that in a fit of pique he started writing a response to the song while hitchhiking his way through Pennsylvania, finally finishing a version of it when he moved into a room at a boarding house located at 101 W. 43rd Street in February of 1940.[1] That song, “This Land Is Your Land,” would become his most famous composition. It was the perfect expression of his world view, filled with sweeping vistas, poetic language, a longing for a better America, and, of course, politics. Two verses, which were not in the version of the song recorded by Moe Asch in 1944, speak to the powerful way Woody weaved his political ideas into a song most people know best from their school days or from campfire singalongs:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me

The sign was painted, said “private property”

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing

That side was made for you and me

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple

By the relief office I saw my people

As they stood hungry I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me

One of these verses—the first one above—was later discovered by a researcher at the Smithsonian. Though “This Land” wouldn’t truly be discovered until many years later, Woody found his profile on the rise almost as soon as he arrived in New York. In February of 1940, Geer introduced Woody to Alan Lomax, and the following month Woody met Pete Seeger, a new protégé on whom he would have a profound impact. That same March Woody traveled to Washington, DC, with Lomax for a marathon three-day recording session. The Library of Congress recordings were the first recordings made of Woody, and they included not only songs but also a steady stream of stories about his experiences growing up in Oklahoma. Leadbelly had done a similar gig with Lomax in 1937, after which he promptly wrote “Bourgeois Blues” after encountering the same Jim Crow racism in the nation’s capital that was omnipresent back home in Louisiana.

Back in New York, Woody would find himself surrounded by talented people: Leadbelly and Lomax, for starters, but also Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, and future collaborators like Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Millard Lampell, Lee Hayes, and Cisco Houston. He formed a group with Seeger, Hays, and Lampell called the Almanac Singers. After the session in DC, Seeger joined Woody on a road trip to visit Woody’s estranged wife and children and other family members in Oklahoma and Texas, where he wrote one of his best union songs,  “Union Maid.”[2] Mary would join Woody in New York before he got the urge to leave once more. He had been hired to host a show called “Pipe Smoking Time” at CBS radio and had other offers as well; CBS agreed to pay him $200 a week—a lot more than the $10 per week he and Lefty Lou had been paid at KFVD in Los Angeles. Unable to handle the success, he disappeared for days at a time. He wrote a rambling letter to Alan Lomax in September of 1940 that included some choice words about his craft:

“I think real folk stuff scares most of the boys around Washington. A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is, or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying the gun and where the peace is—that’s folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the politicians couldn’t find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work. We don’t aim to hurt you or scare you when we get to feeling sorta folksy and make up some folk lore, we’re a doing all we can to make it easy on you.”[3]

Continue to Part Five

[1] Hayes, Chapter 10.

[2] Klein, pp. 166-70.

[3] Klein, p. 176.

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