When Woody Guthrie arrived in Los Angeles in the Spring of 1937, he was something of a hick. A hillbilly folksinger. A refugee from the Dust Bowl. Like a million other out-of-work Americans, “jus’ lookin’ for a job a work.”
He landed that job at KFVD radio station, where he performed a live daily show consisting of folksy wisdom and down-home songs. Traditional music, plus an increasing number of his own original creations. His audience was the growing population of “Okies” and other Dust Bowl refugees, who had come to California in search of pastures of plenty.
But something happened to Woody in that first year in LA. And that’s the fascinating topic of Darryl Holter’s research. Holter, a professor and folk singer, performed at the Harmony Bar in Madison on April 23.
Some years ago Holter began pouring through the archives, digging out Woody’s old song books, noting the subject and tone of the songs and documenting Woody’s evolution from a backwoods folksinger into one of the most sophisticated social commentators of his time.
Some of Woody’s earliest social commentaries were pretty politically backward. He mocked some of the New Deal work programs, for example. But, over time, those lyrics were dropped and we see a new crop songs, many focusing on the plight of agricultural workers and the struggle to form unions.
By 1939, Woody was performing mostly for “movement” audiences and his lyrics and writings had a definite left- wing slant. That’s where we get those labor classics like “Union Maid” and “This Land is Your Land.”
Holter made a study of “This Land,” the song that has come to be something of an anthem for mass working class movements in this country. It seems that Woody never considered it all that important. He, after all, was knocking out hundreds of new songs a year and this was one in the stream.
Woody penned “This Land” over a couple of days in January 1940, reportedly in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Then he pretty much forgot about it. Holter did the song justice at the Harmony Bar, with some of the “forgotten” original lyrics added in.
Holter is a former Madisonian, former member of the TAA and a founder of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. He currently teaches history at the University of Southern California, among many other things.
His latest CD, entitled “Crooked Hearts,” includes original works. It’s available, as they used to say, “at fine record stores everywhere.”
Woody Guthrie died in New York in 1967. But Holter and others are celebrating his 100th birthday this year with a series of concerts and events across the country. See “Coming Events” in this issue.
–Originally published in the July, 2012, issue of Union Labor News.