Woody Guthrie is often painted as a pure, authentic source of the American folk tradition, the natural transmitter for the stories of struggling Okies during the Dust Bowl disaster. But before he ever got a contract to make an album of Dust Bowl songs, Guthrie played a show organized by the "John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers" in New York. A promotional article called him "a real dust bowl refugee" who was "straight out of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath." When he appeared onstage, he played the fool and muttered something about how he thought it was nice to be performing in a "Rapes of Graft" show (Klein 142-143).
This sort of targeted clowning was a specialty of Guthrie's—he was actually well read, private and contemplative, but continually played himself off as a real backcountry boy. And although his family had suffered in varying degrees of poverty while he was a child, his father was actually a politician and a failed real estate investor, not a farmer. His folks were certainly "authentically" from Oklahoma, but his own story was not really that of a Dust Bowl migrant. He had left his family in Texas in 1936 to seek adventure and build up a music career in California, and when he got there he quickly landed himself a radio show. He eventually moved his family west. When he came to New York in 1939, he came again as a songwriter and an aspiring professional musician, not a "Dust Bowl refugee." But his un-self-conscious demeanor and amusing "Okie" persona made up a nice image, and it certainly wasn't a stretch for Guthrie. He was the perfect beaten-up, dusty country boy for the East Coast leftist movement to embrace.
The most luminous (and earliest) figure to embrace the ramblin' image of Woody Guthrie was the great folklorist Alan Lomax, who was only twenty-three at the time and working in a team with his father, John Lomax. They shared the goal of re-discovering and promoting all kinds of traditional music—Alan in particular wanted to be a part of sparking an American folk revival. When he saw Guthrie at the Steinbeck fundraiser, he was thrilled by what he perceived as the authentic, traditional nature of his brilliance. He felt he had "discovered" something great, and he promptly invited Guthrie to his home in Washington, D.C. He hosted him for several weeks as he made a series of Woody Guthrie recordings for the Library of Congress. Introducing Woody, Lomax describes him this way: "Woody Guthrie is, I guess, about thirty years old from the looks of him, but he's seen more in those thirty years than most men see before they're seventy. He hasn't sat in a warm house or a warm office. He's interested in looking out. He's gone into the world and he's looked at the faces of hungry men and women. He's been in hobo jungles. He's performed on picket lines. He's sung his way through every bar and saloon between Oklahoma and California…"
Some of these things are true, but it's also worth wondering how Alan Lomax and even Woody Guthrie himself contributed to constructing and promoting an idea of authenticity associated with Guthrie's music. The folk revival that eventually took off in the 1950s and 1960s looked to Woody Guthrie as one of its greatest heroes, and a lot of it was premised on the idea that folk had a "realness" that other music didn't have. It was roots music, music from the hills, music that could not originate from urban hipsters or wealthy intellectuals like Lomax himself. In some ways, part of the presentation of folk music's authenticity seemed to be about it coming from some imagined outsider place—the hills, the black community, the past. That very passionate attachment to the idea of authentic roots music led to some dicey situations, like the time Bob Dylan got booed off the stage for going electric.
But more recently, historians who study music have been questioning the power of people like Alan Lomax to influence or even create the idea of what constituted original, traditional music (see this discussion of blues legend Robert Johnson for more on that issue).
"Does the use of traditional instruments and tunes create an anti-commercial style, faithful to an original Americana? Or is 'real' folk music only music for the enclave, automatically spoiled when taken out of its original, usually rural context?" asks a reviewer at PopMatters (discussing an interesting new book on the issue of folk music and authenticity). In Lomax's era, the idea of folk music as an expression of something authentic was powerful, and nobody much seemed to question the ways that it could end up turning its subjects into caricatures of themselves. Blues had to be "authentic black music"; country and bluegrass had to be "real hillbilly tunes"; and Woody Guthrie had to be the realest man of the people around.
Scholarship seemed to agree with pop culture on the idea of folk authenticity: an academic article on folk in 1951 called folk music "a spontaneous language of the human race" and "a means of exteriorizing unconscious beliefs." Guthrie's political beliefs were hardly unconscious, and, although he was a brilliant and often spontaneous songwriter, he was far from speaking a mysterious "spontaneous language." Woody claimed he watched the movie Grapes of Wrath several times in order to write the songs on Dust Bowl Ballads; in fact, he had read the book several times (according to biographer Ed Cray, in the documentary This Machine Kills Fascists). He was a highly literate songwriter—a high school dropout and former hobo, yes, but he had spent many of his rambling days in libraries poring over works ranging from Kahlil Gibran to Shakespeare.
Still, Lomax promoted him as a rare artifact of Dust Bowl realness, and when they released Dust Bowl Ballads Guthrie himself wrote a booklet to promote the album in which he called himself "The Dustiest of the Dust Bowlers." His ironic, playful tone in the pamphlet should clue us in to the fact that he knew more than he acted like he knew: "My relative had wrote letters back from California a-telling how pretty the country was and about the big rains and the big ocean and the high mountains, and the valleys with green trees that was loaded down with most every kind of groceries, and they said the whole landscape out there just pelt the word 'Work'…I got so interested in the art and science of Migratin' that I majored in it, in a school so big you can't get out of it" (Klein 160).
On the other hand, drawing the line between authentic and fake is probably not the best approach to Woody Guthrie's story. After all, most good art is not focused solely on the immediate, personal experiences of its creator. More interesting than the question of whether or not Woody was "the real thing" is the fact that audiences responded so well to that image of Woody Guthrie as the real thing: the dustiest, Okie-est fella East of the Mississippi singin' down home tunes about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Whether they were East Coast leftists who wanted to take up the struggle of the Okies as their own, or displaced poor whites themselves, people liked the image of Woody Guthrie. He had something they wanted, and how much of that was a self-conscious performance might actually be unimportant (though it does call into question some of the basic ideals of the folk revival that popped up later). Whatever it was made of, this Guthrie image was powerful enough to stick in the popular imagination. When we think of Woody Guthrie today, we think of Dust Bowl Ballads, rambling men, and the second-hand realness of songs like "Do Re Mi."
That is, if we don't just think of "This Land Is Your Land."