“All you can write is what you see.”
—written on the first draft of “This Land Is Your Land,”
dated February 23, 1940
When he wasn’t playing around with random chords or teasing sentence fragments into full-bore choruses, Woody Guthrie was using whatever pieces of paper he could find to draw cartoons, pastoral scenes, and anything else that could usefully occupy a blank space. And when he wasn’t drawing pictures or playing his guitar, he was pounding typewriters to distill the ideas, memories, and impressions he collected like rare stones from railroad tracks and prairie roads, street corners and boarding houses, political rallies and kitchen tables, labor camps and radio stations. As magnetic and diligent a performer as he was, Guthrie was also a rapt and empathetic observer of the human condition, and he collected swatches of life from what he read, heard, and saw from one end of the country to the other.
He wove these swatches into more than 3,000 songs with a breathtaking range of subject, tone, and lyricism; some were as intimate as a love ballad, others as astringently funny as a dark farce; still others were as playful as a game of hopscotch, as comprehensive in their accounts of injustice as an investigative news story, or as rapturous as a twilight reverie. To borrow from one of his guiding spirits, Guthrie contained multitudes: young and old, women and men. White, Black, and brown people. Whatever the topic, whoever his audience was, no one within earshot of his music forgot what they heard—and nobody I know is tired of hearing, or of singing along with, “This Land Is Your Land.” Decades after Guthrie’s death at 55 from Huntington’s disease in 1967, generations of new listeners rediscover the abiding truth in what Guthrie’s most famous acolyte asserted: “You could listen to his songs,” Bob Dylan said, “and actually learn how to live.”
Only it’s not just the songs. Mostly, yes, but there’s more. Guthrie’s impulsive creativity, his keenness for experience, and his will to express it in any form available to him can be felt with near-overpowering intensity in “Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song,” an exhibit encompassing Guthrie’s life, work, and legacy on view through May 22 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Its astonishments begin with the size of the space. It’s not that the second-floor room set aside for the exhibit is small. But you imagine that only a grander, wider venue would be large enough to contain the memorabilia, artwork, musical instruments, recordings, and relics of a sensibility that continues to inspire waves of musicians and activists while evoking the similarly daring visions of edgy romantics of the past. The sense of possibility Charles Baudelaire conjured in describing genius as “childhood recaptured” was echoed and broadened by Woody Guthrie when he said, “I don’t want the kids to be adults. I want to see the grown folks be kids.”
Nora Guthrie, Woody’s 72-year-old daughter and a co-curator of the Morgan exhibit, recalled in a recent phone interview assembling an exhibit of her father’s work a decade ago for the Smithsonian Institution as part of the 100th anniversary of his birth. “That was a 5,000-square-foot exhibit,” she said. “And even that was a challenge to put together because there’s just so much to go through. My father led a jam-packed life, and he wrote about it all. So you’re trying to find one or two pieces in each phase or aspect of that life that doesn’t say everything but says enough.”
The act of saying a lot with just a few words is close to the core of American folk music—and, for that matter, its art. And there’s something about injecting 139 pieces of Guthrie’s corpus into 1,737 square feet of Morgan Library space that’s evocative of how folk music can convey multiple levels of experience and emotion with the most basic chords and the simplest language.
Entering the exhibit, you are flanked by walls that steer you directly into Guthrie’s teeming brain. To your right is a wall loaded with doodles, sketches, and fragments from his letters, along with autographs and epigrams, such as “Good books put songs in my head, ants in my pants, and my feet to itchin’…for the Big People’s Highway,” and, nearby, one of his trademark salutations, which I first came across in a book signed some years back by Guthrie’s old friend Studs Terkel: “Take it easy, but take it.”
Keep moving to the right and you’re walking into the pages of a biography that begins with Woodrow Wilson Guthrie’s birth on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla. Handwritten lyrics to “In the Oklahoma Hills Where I Was Born” are posted on a wall, as is a 1926 photo of a teenage Woody, his parents, Nora Belle and Charley, and his younger brother, George, on their Okemah porch. The wall itself is a photo depicting an alarmingly massive dust cloud bearing down on houses in Stratford, Tex., on August 14, 1935, or “Black Sunday,” the worst, most paradigmatic disaster of the Dust Bowl that plagued the Southwest during the Great Depression.
Guthrie, by that time, was living in the small North Texas town of Pampa, already collecting folk songs and writing some of his own, notably his “Dust Bowl Ballads,” including “Dusty Old Dusty,” better known by its mordant refrain, “So long, it’s been good to know you,” in reference to the Okies, who left for California without looking back (except maybe to say goodbye). Two years after Black Sunday, Guthrie himself would be in California, with paint brushes and writing tools in his pockets, notebooks and school composition tablets for sketching out songs, and a guitar slung across his back.
Later, as the overreaching of murderous despots in Europe and Asia would set World War II in motion, he’d carry a guitar brandishing the following warning: “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS!” That blunt and unconstrained use of the word “fascist” seems anachronistic in a time when social media and information overload conspire against such plain speaking—even with machinery available that’s more sophisticated than a six-string Gibson.
Where will I get my ideas to write my songs and ballads?
Answer to that is: Everywhere you look, out of books, magazines, daily papers, at the movies, along the streets, riding busses or trains, even flying along in an airplane. Or in bed at night. Anywhere.
Always keep your pencil and paper handy to jot down little + big ideas.
—from one of Woody Guthrie’s pocket notebooks, in Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom, by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli (Chronicle Books, 2022)
It doesn’t take much time in the exhibit, despite the sheer density of material, to find your eyes, ears, and most of the rest of you rambling among the artifacts, much as Guthrie did from one end of the continent to the other. There are the cartoons he drew to accompany “Woody Sez,” a column he wrote for the People’s Daily World—the West Coast Communist Party newspaper. The drawings have an old-school “funny papers” quality reminiscent of George “Krazy Kat” Herriman, E.C. “Popeye” Segar, and even George “Bringing Up Father” McManus. He was so good at it, you’d figure he could have made a long, happy career on the King Features Syndicate payroll.
Only he had too many other things to say and do with this gift that the Sunday funnies weren’t going to approach, including a brutally direct series of sketches about the abuse of workers’ rights and, most hauntingly, a 1940 sketch of human figures hanging off a bridge that he dedicated “to the many negro mothers, fathers, and some alike that was lynched and hanged under the bridge of the Canadian River, seven miles south of Okemah, Okla., and to the day when such will be no more.”
I HATE A SONG THAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU’RE NOT ANY GOOD. I HATE A SONG THAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT YOU ARE JUST BORN TO LOSE. BOUND TO LOSE. NO GOOD TO NOBODY. NO GOOD FOR NOTHING. BECAUSE YOU ARE EITHER TOO OLD OR TOO YOUNG OR TOO FAT OR TOO SLIM OR TOO UGLY OR TOO THIS OR TOO THAT…. SONGS THAT RUN YOU DOWN OR SONGS THAT POKE FUN AT YOU ON ACCOUNT OF YOUR BAD LUCK OR YOUR HARD TRAVELLING.
I AM OUT TO FIGHT THOSE KINDS OF SONGS TO MY VERY LAST BREATH OF AIR AND MY LAST DROP OF BLOOD.
—Letter to WNEW in New York, December 3, 1944
One corner of the exhibit is devoted to “This Land Is Your Land,” which Guthrie wrote on February 23, 1940. Guthrie signed all his songs and included the date and location, in this case the Hanover House, a flophouse at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, a few blocks northwest of the Morgan Library. According to Robert Santelli, he wrote it as a gimlet-eyed response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”; in the original, the refrain ends with “God blessed America for you and me,” and there are verses alluding to private property, hungry people waiting in line for relief “in the shadow of a steeple” along with the “endless skyway” and “golden valley” that remained in the song, even though other lyrics were revised or amended to accommodate fresh triumphs and enduring injustices. The exhibit includes a statement by the Cherokee Nation contending that Guthrie’s lyrics to “This Land” “omit mention of the U.S. government’s policies that dispossessed tribes across the United States of their original homelands”—along with a video performance of the Cherokee National Youth Choir singing the song in their native language.
Still more to absorb: lyrics to “All You Fascists Bound to Lose,” dated a year to the day after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, and to “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a ballad about a fellow Oklahoman and outlaw that juxtaposed his crimes and those of Depression-era bankers:
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered / I’ve seen lots of funny men; / Some will rob you with a six-gun, / And some with a fountain pen. / And as through your life you travel, / Yes, as through your life you roam, / You won’t never see an outlaw / Drive a family from their home.
Words and pictures about being alone on the road, finding communion with others as deep in wayward solitude as he was:
Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see / This world is such a great and a funny place to be; / Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor, / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
He found a home, as close to one as would satisfy him, in November 1943 when he moved to 3520 Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. By then, he’d fallen in love with Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with the Martha Graham Company, who became the second of his three wives two years later while Woody was on furlough from wartime duty. There isn’t much in the exhibit about his military service. But there is a significant portion of two sections devoted to Mazia, who inspired many of Guthrie’s songs, poems, and sketches about love. Among the (subtly erotic) choruses to a 1947 song, “You and I”:
You be my sea lanes, I’ll kiss your wild waves / You kiss my salt spray, I’ll drink your foam / You be my homing pigeon, I’ll be your true religion / You be my house here, I’ll be your home.
Mazia also influenced his visual artistry; the lines of his paintings and drawings inspired by her are less antic than the political cartoons, but just as clean and elemental.
In a boisterous paean to his neighborhood written in 1950 (“Mermaid Avenue, that’s the street / Where all colors of good folks meet”), Guthrie alludes to the “five long years” he and his family have lived in Coney Island. Three years before that song was written, Woody and Marjorie’s eldest daughter, Cathy Ann, died in an electrical fire. She was 4 years old. By that time, she had helped inspire her father to write several songs for children (“Riding in My Car,” “Why Oh Why?,” “Goodnight, Little Darling”), making up another enduring dimension of his art.
In 1952, Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which he feared he’d inherited from his mother. Though the disease would eventually immobilize him, he continued to write and draw as well as he could until his writing became illegible.
I never dread the day that I will die
Cause my sunset is
Somebody’s morning sky
On your way out of the Morgan exhibit, there’s little left to discuss or display except Guthrie’s inheritance and how it has been shared and passed along, both by his contemporaries, notably Pete Seeger, and by disciples as diverse as John Lennon, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Rosanne Cash, Billy Bragg, Chuck D, and, always and forever, Dylan, whose quote about learning how to live from Guthrie’s music is one of the last things you see before leaving the exhibit—and Guthrie’s fount of creativity—behind to face the world.
And as the world is still with us, so are hunger, poverty, labor strife, voter suppression, excessive force from police, white supremacy, totalitarian threats overseas, and the kind of fascism against which Guthrie weaponized his guitar about 80 years ago. The songs have always been plentiful, their examples always available for learning and empowering, whether urging you to take action, encouraging you to make “vroom vroom” noises like a car (just because), or embracing the promise and paradox of America as “This Land Is Your Land” continues to exhort us to do.
“People Are the Song” does a fine job of convincing visitors that everything in Guthrie’s life—the serious and the silly, the romantic and the rollicking, the drawing paper and the typewriting—empowers them not to do better but to be better or, at least, to seek your best self. Progressives sometimes claim that left-wing activists like Guthrie were mostly intent on promoting specific programs and ideologies. But it occurred to me after immersing myself in Guthrie’s personality that, at bottom, what he wished for all men and women was simply a society that would give them what he had: enough space and time to think, to talk, to write, to draw, to wander, and to somehow retain what Baudelaire meant by the genius of childhood. The intensity of his vision, the confidence of his voice, the breadth of his concern for all who suffer and struggle—no matter who they are or where they came from—are all rooted in something at once larger and simpler than conviction: curiosity. Larger and simpler, just like a folk song.
Nora Guthrie compares her dad to a compass. I know what she means, and the needle isn’t necessarily pointing north, but stuck in a position that, instead of a capital letter or a specific direction, has only two words: Pay attention.