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. (Source)
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 (Source, 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 wasn't really that of a Dust Bowl migrant. He'd 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 23 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 says, "Woody Guthrie is, I guess, about thirty years old from the looks of him, but he has seen more in those thirty years than most men see before they are seventy. He hasn't sat in a warm house or a warm office, with anybody he's been interested in lookin' at. He has gone out in the world, looked at the faces of a hundred men and women, he has lived in hobo jungles. He has performed on picket lines, and he has sung his way through every bar and saloon between Oklahoma and California." (Source, 59)
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 couldn't 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 a 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.
Scholars seemed to agree with pop culture on the idea of folk authenticity. Ahmed Adnan Saygun's 1951 academic article Authenticity in Folk Music, 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 The Grapes of Wrath several times in order to write the songs on Dust Bowl Ballads. In fact, he'd read the book several times, according to the documentary This Machine Kills Fascists.
He was a highly literate songwriter. A high school dropout and former hobo, yes, but he'd 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." (Source)
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." (Source, 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 isn't 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."
And there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about.
I never did make up any songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky, but at first it was funny songs or songs about what all's wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in the country was thinking.
And this has held me ever since.
– Woody Guthrie
Guthrie wrote gritty, vivid lyrics, and he himself stresses that his lyrics focused on describing the country as he saw it, not trying to make things sound prettier than they were. He shares this realism with John Steinbeck, and seems to have been inspired by the character-based storytelling that was also Steinbeck's strength.
Guthrie's realism in "Do Re Mi" takes the form of an admonition, spoken by someone in the thick of the Dust Bowl migration situation:
Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, boys, you ain't got the do re mi
Why, you better go 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
We know we've already made a pretty big deal out of the connection to The Grapes of Wrath, but there's yet another important one to talk about here.
Although he may or may not have meant it this way, Guthrie actually aligns himself here with the role of a character in the book. When John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family leaves Oklahoma to try to find jobs and safety in California, they encounter a man named Floyd Knowles, who warns them that there aren't many jobs out West and advises that California is not the paradise it's been made out to be.
Still, the Joads press on past increasing poverty and police checkpoints. They find out that Knowles spoke the truth and the book ends in the very tragedy "Do Re Mi" warns about. Lacking money and connections, the Joads find themselves jobless, in the midst of death and despair in the fabled Garden of Eden.
"Do Re Mi," although it's not at all plagiaristic, could very well be the imagined monologue of the character of Floyd Knowles. Structurally, the song is almost a character study of its own, a song version of one of the photographs by Dorothea Lange that did so much to raise awareness about the plight of the Okies.