Social Progress

Social Progress


Here in the good ol' US of A., as in most places I suspect, the Covid-19 virus has created havoc. While mask-wearing, sanitizing and keeping our distance has become as common as it's become annoying, it's mainly an inconvenience most of us can endure for the common good.  However, with so many working people finding themselves unemployed and with so many shops and business owners either curtailed or shut down,   people in general are struggling to make ends meet.  

Fortunately we in the U.S. have had some social assistance in the form of unemployment enhancement,  stimulus checks, easy loans, temporary anti-eviction measures, etc.  Although none of these things are permanent or complete solutions, it's still good to know the government offers some support to those in distress.

Almost 100 years ago the stock market crashed, signaling the start of of what became known as the Great Depression, a severe economic downturn that lasted nearly 15 years (this depression became worldwide). At that time none of the current cushions existed for workers or businesses while unemployment soared and shops shuttered their windows.   As bad as this may have been, in some areas it only got worse. In the early 1930s the Great Plains found itself in a wave of droughts.  For years farmers, absentee farmers in particular, had been destroying the prairie topsoil with quick-buck farming practices.  Coupled with the drought, the resulting poor soil mixed with high winds to produce monstrous dust storms blacking out the sky, choking the population and rendering their farms useless. This area became known as the Dust Bowl.  

The Dust Bowl destroyed farms, people and communities. People, mainly from the Lone Star and Panhandle states started leaving in droves, mostly towards the west coast with advertised promises of work.  3.5 million citizen left their homes so the influx was a burden on their destinations and the so-called "Oakies" were treated as vermin wherever they went.  

This isn't meant to be a history lesson but rather an introduction leading into a look into the times surrounding the early modern American folk singers and their associations with social issues.      

The most famous of these was Woody Guthrie.  Some places I've looked at suggest Guthrie was born into a bourgeois middle class family and that his father's involvement in racial cruelty somehow made Woody a racist also.  Woodrow Wilson Guthrie's father, Charley, had indeed been an erstwhile politician and land speculator. He also took part in a lynching the year before Woody was born and became a local Klansman.  This was the atmosphere in which Woody was raised and while much of it became part of his fabric, it's also quite evident that he elevated himself over the years.  The same year the stock market crashed, Woody's mother died of Huntington's Disease, a disease that kills brain cells and one that would later claim Woody himself as well as two of his daughters, Gwendolyn and Sue, who both died of the disease at age 41, the same age as Woody's mother, Nora Belle, had.  Woody made it to 55 though his last 15 years or so were a steady downhill ride.    Woody was born in Oklahoma but when his father's business dealings all went south, they moved to Texas where they were living with relatives when the Dust Bowl hit.  Woody, like so many others trekked to California. 

     The great folk music preservationist, Alan Lomax, who first met Woody in 1940, wrote:

Tragedy walked in on Woody's early life. His sister died in a frightening domestic accident, and the family was torn apart by all the problems endemic in a little boom town in Western Oklahoma. Woody grew up doing money errands, doing odd jobs, selling cigarettes in the juke joints, surviving any way he could. And then he saw the Dust Bowl and experienced the terrors of a whole population getting up and leaving its roots and moving somewhere else. So he knew life from the bottom of the heap. But amazingly enough he always had a kind of mature vision of this. He saw it from the outside the way a writer sees it.

Woody was a product of his times, for better or worse, and saw the world from his personal  experiences and perspective - that of a common man wanting a decent life for himself and his family in this Land of Plenty.  The Haves and Have-Nots was a real dichotomy and not some idealistic cause.  He saw America not only as it was but also as he wanted it to be.  That was the substance of his songs and of his very core.

Woody went to California in 1937.  California growers, after the 1929 Undesirable Aliens Act (pretty much specifically targeting Mexicans) that criminalized border crossings which occurred outside of official ports of entry, found themselves with their own drought -- a labor shortage -- and started advertising outside the state for workers   Although by the time Woody made it to L.A. , the border guards sent to harass the "Okies" were gone, fear and prejudice were still one of the most abundant crops in California. 

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.

Guthrie wrote songs about the plight of the poor and homeless - the refugees.


The 1929 stock market crash was viewed by many as proof that Capitalism was a doomed ideology while the poor and homeless never reaped much benefit from it anyway.  The crash and subsequent depression opened the door for different ideas to gain a stronger foothold particularly in the minds of the poor, the low wage workers, the refugees and all those who valued them.   
It's not clear whether Guthrie after moving to California ever formally joined the American Communist Party but it's certain he aligned with it and supported it just as it supported him.  Guthrie famously stated, "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life,"  playfully side-stepping the question of his party affiliation.  But there is no doubt Guthrie saw value in communist ideals, having experienced the wealth in the hands of a few used a a whip or carrot against those less fortunate. From his standpoint distribution of wealth with some equity was the duty of the government. 

a raid on a California Communist meeting hall

In 1939 Guthrie wrote a column called "Woody Sez" for the San Francisco based communist newspaper, "People's Daily World," the West Coast equivalent to New York's "Daily Worker." But when asked about his being associated with the Communist Party, Guthrie replied, "Left wing, right wing, chicken wing - it's all the same to me. I sing my songs wherever I can sing 'em. So if you'll have me, I'll be glad to go."

from the "People's Daily World"

a sketch by Guthrie while in California

The Communist Party was very interested in labor unions.  They served it's purpose of attracting those most susceptible to their message but in the process, probably did help those people to some degree by pushing unions.  One of the main problems with the American Communist part (CPUSA) was that it appealed not only to socialists but also attracted anarchists and similarly violent radicals.  The American Socialist Party and the CPUSA were very different even though many of their goals ran parallel.   All leftist groups tended to get lumped together under a "communist" heading.   Their one commonality was their egalitarian ideals.  These ideals are what allured people like Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell, Fred Hellerman and Woody Guthrie more so than the more technical aspects of its political theory.  In all practicality these singers were commonists more so than communists, as Guthrie himself suggested, extremely left in their aspirations for America, yet completely in tune with the American Dream. 

You can't scare me. I'm Stickin' to the Union

"Jesus Christ" (a parody of "The Ballad of Jessie James")

FDR instituted the New Deal as well as, or including, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRCA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Social Security Act (SSA),  all social programs designed to relieve the worst effects from the Great Depression, all socialist in nature.  

Of course, this exploration isn't about political science or about advancing any political agenda.  This is merely an attempt to gain insight into the activism/folk music connections and origins that inspired so much protest music from before WWII until after the Vietnam War.  

Woody Guthrie, a man who embraced communism, wore his socialist brand like a badge of honor and who, if he hadn't started his genetic mental decline when he did,  would have worn a bulls-eye targeted by McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC),  wrote one of the most famous and culturally ingrained songs in American history, "This Land is Your Land"  -- not exactly "un-American" though not exactly as it seems either.  In my readings I came across a reasonable theory that Guthrie's Huntington Disease, pretty much silencing him from the early 1950s on, allowed his voice to be usurped and his intents changed.  This would certainly account for the embracing of this song as a paean to the America we've been taught to love.


This land is your land, This land is my land,
from California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
(originally: God blessed America for me.)
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
(originally: God blessed America for me.)
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting
(originally: God blessed America for me.)
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
(originally: Did God blessed America for me?)
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back,
(originally: God blessed America for me.)
this land was made for you and me.

This is Elizabeth Mitchell singing a lovely full version of "This Land is Your Land."
[Mitchell started as part of the duo, Liz and Lisa, with Lisa Loeb, then went on to work with Smithsonian Folkways and produced music for children.  This is a track of her 2012 album "Little Seed."]

Woody's original words express clearly his perception of America both as he saw it--with all the inequalities-- and as it should be, a bountiful place for everyone. 

Guthrie had written the song after hitchhiking from California to New York City in 1940, the varied landscapes probably serving as inspiration --plus he was tired of hearing the saccharine lyrics of a recent (though originally written after WWI) airwaves favorite, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" sung by Kate Smith.   After writing the song he stuffed it in a drawer and, finding it 4 years later, recorded it in 1944

Today we tend to take social programs for granted.  During the time when folk music was leaving the backwoods and mountains to be popularized and mainstreamed, social programs on a national level were only coming into existence.  I don't know what, if any, influence music exerted on social change, but it did bring awareness towards the less fortunate to the public.   

WOODY SEZ:  "Left wing, right wing, chicken wing, it's all the same to me."

SARAH SEZ:   I agree, Woodrow.   Imagine the United State throughout it's almost 2.5 centuries as a giant quilt-work.  Each square is a different aspect but they're all part of the resulting pattern.  It's stitched with the threads of our individual lives and stuffed or filled with our hopes, dreams fears and experiences.  However different,  our ideas --the ones that count-- have the same goal in sight, even if taking a different path to reach it.  I think we need this diversity of ideas. Capitalism is good motivation to succeed or excel.  Socialism takes care of those lost or waylaid along the path.  I was telling my friend the other day that one judge of a person's character is how they treat the most vulnerable.  I think nations have characteristics and the same criterion holds for them.  A good country flourishes; a great country leaves no one behind.   Guthrie and the pioneers of popularized modern folk music in America,  all flawed individuals like the rest of us, envisioned a great country.


A few more musical notes:

Unlike Pete Seeger who enlisted in the army and served (1942-45) as an airplane mechanic, then in the special entertainment corps, reaching the rank of corporal despite being investigated all the while for his ties to the CPUSA and because his fiancé was a Japanese-American,  Woody Guthrie joined the Merchant Marines, where he worked in the galley, to avoid the draft.   Ironically,  he was involved in some serious actions. On a voyage to carry supplies for the planned invasion of Italy, his ship was torpedoed (in September 1943) and though it made it to port, was severely damaged.  He had to find another ship within 30 days or become eligible for the draft.  He caught two shorter voyages and eventually made it back to NYC in late March 1944.  Mid-April Guthrie went to Asch Records, a small label owned by Moses Asch, taking along his Merchant Marine sidekick, Cisco Houston and at other times his close friends Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Sis Cunningham. This was when he rediscovered and recorded "This Land is Your Land."   In the couple of weeks spent at Asch Records, Guthrie recorded 150 songs.  His last voyage, in May 1944, was to transport troops for the D-Day invasion. His ship was torpedoed by a U-Boat off Utah Beach.  After he got home, his communist ties caught up with him as the Merchant Marines changed their policies. He was forced to leave the Merchant Marines and was drafted into the army in May 1945.   Asch Records went belly up in 1947 which turned into a logistical nightmare since most of Guthrie's Asch recording hadn't been released and fell into various hands.

Woody Guthrie never wrote an original melody, but, like many of his contemporaries, borrowed freely from existing tunes, adding his own flourishes.  The music to "This Land is Your Land" was borrowed from the Carter Family's recording "Little Darling Pal of Mine" (1935).

The Carter Family had adapted that song from a Christian hymnal song, "When the World's on Fire"(copyright 1928) which they recorded themselves in 1930.

After Woody arrived in California, he was more fortunate than many. He and his cousin Jack got a KFVD radio show called "The Oklahoma and Woody Show."  There wasn't much money in it.  Jack "Oklahoma" Guthrie worked a day job in construction. One of his working buddies was Roy Crissman.  Roy had two daughters,.  17 year old Jack dated the youngest, Mary Ruth, but the other daughter took Jack's place as Woody's singing partner. She was Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman.  (Called "Lefty" because she was left-handed, not because she was leftist, though she was.)
In Woody's words:

It was not too long till I met the Crissman family out on some street of car smoke in Glendale. Roy and the Mrs. Crissman had two daughters, Mary Ruth and "Lefty Lou" from Old 'Mizoo. She was a tall thin-faced cornfed Missouri farm girl with a voice rough and husky and I played my southern E chord guitar in back of our voices while we sung as "WOODY AND LEFTY LOU" and got twenty thousand letters during the almost two years that we sung over the mikes of KFVD. KFVD belonged to J. Franke Burke and he was the campaign manager the year Olsen was elected governor. Lefty Lou and me took quite a hand in politics and sung some of our first political and religious songs of our own making right then and there. A big Agent hired Lefty Lou and me to go down below the border to XELO, Tia Juana. I saw the home-made music boxes of the Mexican peons that played around the streets, and we picked up lots of good genuine Mexicana folk songs from them.


Woody mentions Tia Juana.  The card below was made for their Tijuana, Mexico jaunt with XELO AM radio:

Oklahoma is  cousin Jack, Aileen and Jeff are his aunt and uncle.

I'm only putting the image below because I've seen it misidentified as Lefty Lou.  It's actually Woody with Margaret Johnson at CBS in 1940. Margaret started in radio as the character "Honey Chile" for the Bob Hope radio show in 1936.  She and her husband, both of whom were musicians, formed the Song Spinners quartet providing back up singing for such people as Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald.