The public image of Woody Guthrie captivates me.
It’s quite a romantic image, even though there wasn’t anything romantic about much of his life. He is known mainly for being a songwriter – particularly for This Land is Your Land – and for being a Communist sympathizer, the worst badge you could wear in this country next to “Communist.” Some of you may have seen photographs of him on stage, his guitar sporting a label that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
He began his career performing traditional music on the radio in Los Angeles. The way he ended up in California was the same way many of his fellow Oklahomans had – escaping the Dust Bowl. These “Okie” migrants were the object of a lot of resentment and sometimes abuse from California locals.
Woody Guthrie’s music found a ready audience among California Okies. It was during his time in radio that he began writing protest songs, one of which got the attention of a newscaster named Ed Robbin. He brought Guthrie into contact with some of the socialists and communists in Southern California.
Although never a member of the Communist Party, Guthrie wrote a column for The Daily Worker, ensuring his status as a fellow traveler. Success found him, but his lifelong fondness for being on the road and his discomfort with the entertainment business kept his life unstable. But his legacy is intact: the outsider giving a voice to all the other outsiders looking in on the American dream.
The Woody Guthrie song I love the most is a protest song not against injustice or fascism but against grown-up seriousness. It’s about one of my favorite things to do as a child and even now – going for a ride in the car.