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Woody Guthrie on Elections, Politics, and the Power of Folksong

A hand-drawn cartoon of a man with Vote for Bloat written under it, a page

Vote for Bloat,” an essay written on brown paper. He describes elections in general, and those he witnessed around Okemah, Oklahoma, where he grew up. Page five of this manuscript. September 20, 1940.

During the 1940s, singer, songwriter, and author Woody Guthrie carried on a lively correspondence with the staff of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive) where many of his songs are housed. He had recorded songs for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in March of 1940, and so the correspondence followed this event. Some of these missives are letters dealing with his business with or questions for the archive staff, while others are creative essays. Keenly aware that he was writing to the “. . . skid row section of the poor folks’ division of the Library of Congress,” [1] Guthrie’s recurring topics included elections, voting, politicians, and politics, apparently because Alan Lomax specifically requested that he write on these topics. A selection of these are available in the presentation Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950. (You will notice that Guthrie’s grammar and spelling are unconventional, often to convey his Oklahoma dialect as well as humor.)

Woody Guthrie grew up in Okemah, Oklahoma, where his father was a local politician. In one letter he describes his father as “one of the old time fist fighting democrats.” [2 ] But his father was clearly not alone and fighting was not confined to one political party. In his essay, “Vote for Bloat,” Guthrie describes elections as he experienced them growing up in Oklahoma, and reminds us why the west was called “wild.” [3] The creative piece describes elections as a period of ongoing fighting between different factions that frequently became physical with digressions about ongoing domestic upsets and near calamities in the apartment building where he lives. This adds comedy to the election hub-bub and gives an impression of past and present chaos as being the norm.

Also in 1940, Guthrie sent an essay to Alan Lomax that began with the explanation that “you mentioned to me in a little talk that we had somewhere in a salloon that you was figuring on getting together some information about elections and that you wanted me to set down and think of all that I could about them and write it down and mail it in to you at the Library of American Handsprings which I am doing to date, whichever date this is.” [4]

Woody Guthrie playing a guitar. On the guitar is a sticker that says "This Machine Kills Fascists"

Woody Guthrie. Photo by Al Aumuller, 1943. The sign on his guitar reads “This machine kills fascists.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Guthrie also commented on the dawn of the political career of a woman in Congress, saying, “I went out with twenty dollars and come back with two new shirts and a candidate for Congress at Large. She says she can change her name to Lydia Pinkham and get elected up in Maine. Well, the name’s the maine thing.” Any American reader in that year would know at once that he was referring to Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), a Republican who took office through a special election that spring after her husband, Representative Clyde Smith, died in April. She suddenly gained great sympathy and popularity nationwide. It was soon speculated that she was not likely to simply fill out her husband’s term, as widows of politicians who took office had most commonly done in the past, but would run in the general election and likely win (as she did). Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883) was an entrepreneur of patent medicine, whose name was well known across the country at the time, and so Guthrie was making a comparison to Smith’s sudden rise in popularity by using this pseudonym (I have not yet found a quote by Smith comparing herself to Pinkham). Guthrie’s prediction of her continued popularity seems prophetic in hindsight. Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to be elected to both the House of Representatives and the Senate. She was also the first woman to be placed in nomination for President at a major party’s convention in 1964; however, she lost the Republican nomination to Senator Barry Goldwater. She is best remembered for her eloquent denunciation of McCarthyism in 1950, something Guthrie surely must have appreciated ten years after this essay was written. [5]

Guthrie also mentions Will Rogers, [6] a fellow Oklahoman and hero of Guthrie’s who had a similar sense of humor about political events. He concludes with a series of sentences that juxtapose the virtues and frustration of voting:

Anybody can set down and think up a lot of pretty things and all but that dont count no more than a sneeze in a cyclone. It’s the same way with voting. Most folks dont realize that your vote is about the best thing you got in the world because it is the best thing you can use to change the world and make it better. The trouble is that you just go down and vote and shoot your wad, and you do it this time just like you been a doing it all of your life and maybe that’s just what’s wrong with your life, unless you happen to be a living one of them lives that there aint nothing wrong with. Well there’s a few little things wrong with mine and I’ll keep a voting till I fix it — and if I dont fix it by a voting one way, I’ll vote another way, and finally, I’ll find out the right way, and then maybe somebody else will, and somebody else, until we’ll have the right fellers a holding down them easy chairs, but not a taking it so dadgum easy. And when I say taking it I really mean a taking it. They been a taking it just as fast as you can rake and scrape and they can carry more out the front door with a fountain pen than you can carry in with a ten ton truck. Woody.

On September 19, 1940 Woody Guthrie wrote another letter to Alan Lomax about, as he put it, “as many different subjects as I can put on one line,” including politics. [7]  On pages 4 and 5 he talks about his political affiliations. This comes up as he talks about a newspaper review of his performances to benefit the migrant workers on what he calls “Jimmy Roger’s Sawdust Trail.”  The Sawdust Trail was a series of concerts held in tents in California.  The reviews were good, but he says that people wrote to the newspapers and “They called me a communist and a wild man and everything you could think of but I don’t care what they call me. I aint a member of any earthly organization my trouble is I ought to just go down in the morning and just join everything.” He says that he first registered as a democrat and later as a progressive saying, “I done that on a dare more or less to impress a girl I was walking out.”  This all foreshadowed the end of Guthrie’s career, when the anti-communist sentiments of the McCarthy era prevented him from performing in many venues, although he was never formally blacklisted.  As it happened, he began to have symptoms of Huntington’s disease in the late 1940s and so his political problems were overshadowed by his health problems.

Guthrie’s anti-fascist sentiments were printed on his guitar and folksong, for him, was a tool for social change. As he did in several letters, he speculated on what might happen to his songs in the folk music collections at the Library of Congress in this same September letter (pages 7-8), expressing the hope that members of Congress might get together and sing them. But in this letter he gives the best explanation of what that imagined scene might accomplish as well as his personal definition of folksong:

The Library of Congress is good. It has helped me by recording what I had to say and copy all my songs to file away so the Senators cant find them. Course they are always there in case they get a few snorts under their vest and want to sing. I think real folk stuff scares most of the boys around Washington. A folk song is whats wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is is [sic] or whose out of work and how to fix it or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is — thats folk lore and folks make it up because they seen that the politicians couldnt see nothing to fix nor nobody to feed or give a job of work. We dont aim to hurt you or scare you when we get to feeling folksy and make up some folk lore, we’re doing all we can to make it easy on you. I can sing all day and all night sixty days and sixty nights but of course I aint got enough wind to be in office.

Notes

  1. Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 17, 1940, part of Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950 AFC 1940/004, Box 1, Folder A, Correspondence, 1940-50; A-6.
  2. “No Title,” by Woody Guthrie, part of Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950 AFC 1940/004, Box 1, Writings, Folder 4.
  3.  ”Vote for Bloat,” by Woody Guthrie, part of Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950 AFC 1940/004, Box 3, Oversized; 9.
  4. Essay from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, ca. November 1940,” by Woody Guthrie, part of Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950 AFC 1940/004, Box 3, Oversized; 11. This letter may have been written earlier than November, as the election of Margaret Chase Smith occurred in June.
  5. See “Declaration of Conscience” (in the U.S. Senate), by Margaret Chase Smith, June 1, 1950.  [PDF, 4 pp., 208KB]
  6. Will Rogers had passed away in 1935, before this essay was written. Recordings of Will Rogers can be found in the National Jukebox, including humorous monologs on political themes such as “Will Rogers’ First Political Speech” (1923) and “Will Rogers nominates Henry Ford for President” (1923).
  7. Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940, part of Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950 AFC 1940/004, Box 1, Folder A, Correspondence, 1940-50; A-7.

Resources

Dunaway, David King, “Force and Violins: What the FBI had on Folksingers,” 2008 lecture at the Library of Congress.

Folk Singers, Social Reform, and the Red Scare,” an essay with links to collection items in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

Guthrie, Nora, “My Father, My Partner” 2012 lecture at the Library of Congress celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie.

The Gypsy Davy,” a traditional ballad sung by Woody Guthrie, recorded by Alan Lomax and John Langenegger, 1942.

Radio programs that include performances by Woody Guthrie, alone and with others, may be found online as part of the Association for Cultural Equity’s “Research Center.”

Woody Guthrie Archives, Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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