Essays reflect on the legacy of Woody Guthrie

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Woody Guthrie was a man of the road. He first left Oklahoma and Texas as a young man, joining the great wave of Okies and Arkies fleeing the barren farmlands of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, and headed west in search of work and a hopeful future.

At first, writing and singing folk songs was just something he did along the way, documenting what he witnessed and felt during his firsthand look at this dark period of American history. Guthrie landed in Los Angeles in 1937, and his life began to change.

“L.A. affected Guthrie in a lot of ways — his musical development, his political development and his attitudes about racial issues,” says Darryl Holter, co-author of “Woody Guthrie L.A. 1937 to 1941.” His co-author, William Deverell, describes the songwriter’s time in the city as “critical. His time in L.A. was a real caldron of change for him.”

The book is a collection of 12 essays by Holter, Deverell and others that explore the hugely influential troubadour’s time in Southern California, where he became a radio celebrity, political activist and lived in homes and flophouses spread from Skid Row to Glendale and Hollywood. “He wasn’t really good at paying rent,” says Holter. “He crashed at a lot of people’s house.”

Holter and Deverell will lead a discussion of Guthrie March 6 at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse.

[Woody] Guthrie was the first person to bring authentic folk music to political activists, and it was done here in L.A.

— Darryl Holter, co-author of “Woody Guthrie L.A. 1937 to 1941”

When Guthrie arrived in Los Angeles, he was an amateur singer performing on street corners for tips and drinks, while working other jobs to survive. He was among 200,000 travelers and families who converged on the town. “There is this impression that L.A. somehow avoided the Great Depression,” says Deverell, a professor of history at the University of Southern California. “That’s just not true. It was sunnier, but the Depression hit this place pretty hard. So Guthrie came to a place that was struggling.”

Guthrie remained in Los Angeles, where his developing talents as a performer soon led to work singing on the radio. On KFED, he had one of the most popular shows on the Los Angeles airwaves, singing popular gospel songs, hill country songs, and parlor ballads. When he ran out of existing tunes, he started writing his own.

While living in Glendale with his wife and children, Guthrie wrote “Oklahoma Hills” after a kid next door asked where he came from. It was later a hit, as was “Do Re Mi,” which told of the struggle of migrant workers heading toward California. The same issues emerged in the John Steinbeck novel “Grapes of Wrath,” and Guthrie himself was often compared to the fictional character of Tom Joad.

“A lot of the agricultural workers who came from the Dust Bowl weren’t that popular with the regular Angelenos,” says Holter, a recording artist and adjunct professor at USC. “They tended to be poor. They tended to have a lot children. They were viewed as being not very literate and were on welfare. The LAPD went to the Arizona border and set up check points, so as people were trying to come in the cops would stop them.”

Times were hard even for those who made it all the way to Los Angeles, with hardship and tragedies that filled Guthrie’s work. “A lot of them lived alongside the river in tents and shacks,” says Holter. “One of the Guthrie’s songs talks about the ‘Los Angeles New Year’s Flood,’ and a lot of people were swept away and never came back.”

Guthrie wrote about 200 songs for the radio show. Most were topical and universal, including one called “Downtown Traffic Blues.” Among his biggest fans were the poor tenant farmers he’s traveled west with, and his shaggy-haired persona eventually gave him a national profile. None of his radio shows were recorded, but the songs lived on. And over time, the lyrics changed as Guthrie’s political views evolved, which Holter discovered while examining the songwriter’s archives.

He would retype and hone the lyrics over time. “Guthrie had a real sense of the little guy but his politics were very unformed,” says Holter. “They were vaguely populist. But when he came to L.A., he started to meet people who were involved in political activities.”

In Los Angeles, he met a variety of creative people, including Steinbeck and actor Will Geer, who became a close friend. He began writing a column and drawing cartoons for the leftist publication People’s World. “It gave him a new political framework,” Holter explains. “The political left became a home for someone who never really had a home. When he sang the song ‘I Ain’t Got No Home,’ he wasn’t far from the truth.”

“His racial attitudes changed in L.A. He came from a place where racism was the law. Segregation was the law ... Blacks and Mexicans were second-class citizens, and there was no question about it. Lynchings took place with no repercussions in most cases. When Guthrie came, he carried some of those attitudes himself.”

Those changes happened as “he met more black musicians, and as he met more African Americans in the labor and political movements.”

Guthrie’s influence on American music and its role in politics was substantial, leading directly to the work of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and the folk revival that rose out of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late ‘40s and 1950s. “Guthrie was the first person to bring authentic folk music to political activists, and it was done here in L.A. It was that kind of chemistry that we later see in the folk revival in Greenwich Village.”

The traveling musician left Los Angeles in 1941, but returned in the early ‘50s to spend time in Topanga Canyon with Geer and other artists. By then he was already showing signs of the Huntington’s disease that would eventually cause his death in 1967.

He managed to leave a mark that is still felt in popular music today. “Guthrie was the first person to bring authentic folk music to political activists,” says Holter, “and it was done here in L.A.”


What: Darryl Holter and William Deverell discuss and sign “Woody Guthrie L.A. 1937 to 1941”

When: 4 p.m., Sunday, March 6

Where: Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, 1010 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge.

More info: (818) 790-0717


Steve Appleford,

Twitter: @SteveAppleford



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