Part Three: If You Ain’t Got That Do-Re-Mi… (1937-40)
Woody hoboed his way to California, only to find, according to Klein, that “the water didn’t taste at all like wine.” The trip was not especially pleasant, either. Woody walked for miles, hitch-hiked, and rode the rails on his way west, sometimes staying in hobo jungles, gatherings of other itinerant men desperate for work. He met with railroad bulls, hired company thugs who removed people from trains and broke up their camps, and had a particularly jarring experience with a man of the cloth in Tucson, Arizona—an experience that was also featured in the 1976 biopic based on his semi-autobiographical memoir, Bound for Glory. He met roadblocks on his way into California and never forgot the experience: here were American citizens—refugees of the Dust Bowl and the collapse of the economy—trying to move from one American state to another in search of better opportunities, and they found against of their own government turning them away. Woody would later remember,
Lots of folks back east, they say, is leavin’ home every day
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line
Across the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old Dust Bowl
They think they’re going to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find:
The police at the port of entry say “You’re number fourteen thousand for today!”
If you ain’t got that do-re-mi, folks, if you ain’t got the do-re-mi
Well you’d better got back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
But, believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot if you ain’t got the do-re-mi
Woody saw some of the worst of his fellow humans on his journey out west, but he saw some of the best too. He expressed the tension between these different visions of America beautifully when he wrote, many years later, “This is our country here,” a kind of monologue that encourages Americans to embrace both sides of their split personality. “I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly, and it was because I knew the pretty part that I wanted to change the ugly part, because I hated the dirty part that I knew how to feel the love for the cleaner part,” he wrote. It was his way of looking forward, not upward.
When he finally got to Los Angeles, Woody found himself a job at KFVD playing cowboy songs with his cousin Jack Guthrie, who quickly bailed on him. Woody found a new partner in Maxine Crissman, whom he dubbed “Lefty Lou from Old Mizzou,” and the two began hosting a show appropriately called “The Woody & Lefty Lou Show.” The two played old-timey songs for the migrants who had moved from the east, giving them a connection to their old homes, interspersed with Woody’s “folksy” humor. One night in October of 1937, he took the old-timey act too far. He later received a letter from a listener scolding him for his poor taste: “You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your N**** Blues,” the listener wrote. “I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark,” the writer continued. “No person…of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today.” Woody, as Klein has written, was “mortified.” He hadn’t given a thought to how his casual racism would be received on air. He apologized immediately on his next show. He read the letter aloud and swore he would never use the word again.
This event may have signaled a widening of Woody’s political sensibilities. Soon he found himself falling in with California leftists eager to upend the economic and political system that had brought on the Depression. “Left wing, chicken wing,” Woody said, “it’s all the same to me.” He characteristically fell asleep at his first Communist Party meeting, where he was scheduled to play a song about a wrongly imprisoned political activist and labor leader named Tom Mooney, but roused himself to offer the song and brought down the house. Things, as Hayes writes in his book, were really starting to happen for Woody.He wrote and performed some of his most powerful political songs in this period, including “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” “Christ for President,” “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” and the ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd,” which was wildly popular in the labor camps he visited with actor and activist Will Geer in the fall of 1939. By early 1940 Geer had invited him to New York, and Woody was on the road again.