At a time when even the most generous spirits among us have begun to grumble aloud about having “homeless fatigue,” it’s a great pleasure to heft this handsome, substantial and valuable book.
Doubtless, “Pastures of Plenty” will hold small appeal for yuppies, anti-semantic deconstructionists or other elements of the post-modernist mob--not to mention political reactionaries who probably will always regard Woody Guthrie as a “red” enemy. But anyone broadly interested in American music or radical politics or recent U.S. life and history will welcome Guthrie’s hitherto-uncollected writings with open mind and arms.
The collection--assembled by Guthrie’s longtime manager Harold Leventhal and rock writer Dave Marsh--comprises stories, poems, songs, letters, diary entries, essays, drawings and photographs, most of which never have been published. The selections range from the text of the first song Guthrie ever wrote (“Old Gray Team Horses,” ca. 1936) to his last coherent notes before succumbing to the mind-destroying hereditary disease, Huntington’s chorea, which claimed his life in 1967 after 13 years of horror and misery in a succession of East Coast public hospitals. As detailed in Joe Klein’s fine and compassionate biography of a decade ago, Guthrie’s career as a radical singer-songwriter and literary man spanned fewer than 20 years--from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. He was a mere 37 when his health broke and he lost the ability to create.
Guthrie sprang from the raw frontier of Oklahoma and somehow survived the harrowing disintegration of his family after his mother was stricken with the same disease that would eventually claim him. Drifting to California during the Depression as part of the Okie diaspora of the Dust Bowl years, he sang “hillbilly” songs in the Jimmie Rodgers-Carter Family vein on Los Angeles radio station KFVD until he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow Okies in Southern California’s migrant labor camps and strike-embattled fruit orchards. In a sketch written in 1947, he recalls:
“I sung songs for the cotton pickers and cotton strikers, and for migratory workers, packers, canning-house workers, fruit pickers, and all sorts of other country and city workers. I wrote a daily article for the People’s Daily World, called ‘Woody Says.’ I always read the radical papers over my program and took sides with the workers all I knew how. . . .
“I hated the false-front decay and rot of California’s fascistic oil and gas deals, the ptomaine poison and brass knucks in the jails and prisons, the dumped oranges and peaches and grapes rotting and runing down into little streams of creosote-poisoned juices.
“I saw the hundreds of thousands of stranded, broke, hungry, idle, miserable people that lined the highways all out through the leaves and underbrush. I heard these people sing in their jungle camps and in their Federal Work Camps and sang songs I made up for them. . . .”
“I ain’t a writer,” Guthrie claimed with characteristic underdog modesty in 1941. “I’m just a little one-cylinder guitar picker.” In the same vein, he signed many of his letters, “True as the average.” But the father of the American folk-music movement never wrote un-truer words. From young manhood onward, Guthrie showed every sign of being a special, one-of-a-kind person with talent bursting out in every direction.
Among his 1,000-plus songs, the “Dust Bowl Ballads” of 1940, plus the later Grand Coulee Dam song series, along with the achingly mournful postwar ballad “Deportees (Plane Crash at Los Gatos),” assure him immortality in our national song bag. “This Land Is Your Land"--by now as ubiquitous as Frank Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life” at yuletide--has been seriously urged as a second, or new, national anthem.
As a “self-portrait,” “Pastures of Plenty” sets forth a less romanticized version of Guthrie’s 1943 autobiographical novel, “Bound for Glory,” as well as offering accounts of his World War II and postwar experiences. The collection, it seems to me, serves two important purposes. First, it confirms the raspy-voiced little Oklahoman as a powerful literary figure whose best writing doesn’t need analysis, just praise. What an author like James Agee, say, achieved from the point of view of a middle-class, radicalized intellectual of the Popular Front period, Guthrie accomplished as a largely self-schooled--and authentically broke and sometimes homeless--member of the working class.
The book’s second achievement is that it shows persuasively that Guthrie was a patriot and a fairly solid citizen as opposed to a “subversive” hobgoblin. True, Guthrie’s life was far from tidy, and he certainly performed at “red” functions and wrote for “un-American” publications--but he also served as a seaman on three ships that were sunk by Nazi torpedoes during the European war.
In philosophic outlook, Guthrie was more a Wobbly unionist than a Communist--anti-fat cat to the teeth, without any dialectical trimmings. Just as he rose above his raising in matters of race, he hated injustice in all its myriad varieties.
My hunch is that he never joined the American Communist Party, probably much to the Party’s relief. Who, after all, would have “disciplined” such a wild hair? As Guthrie wrote in a letter to Alan Lomax: “I don’t care what they call me. I ain’t a member of any earthly organization. . . .”
In our morally shabby age, when even the term “liberal” has been blackened by the right-wing fat cats of our ruling class, it occurs to me that perhaps we need a little more grit in our diet. “Pastures of Plenty” offers up a homely but filling bill-of-fare of firebrand dissent, and re-acquaints us with one of the most glorious and uniquely American voices of the century.
However brief and thwarted his life, Woody Guthrie believed in a goal--a dream, an ideal--outside himself. Would to the heavens that today’s homeless had such a champion.