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Woody Guthrie, the Singing Sidekick

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Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (1912-1967) found a warm grubstake in our hearts. He died, but to some of us he’ll always be riding and singing on the range with Bob Livingston, Crash Corrigan[1], Duncan Renaldo, John Wayne and Max Terhune in those great old B Westerns from Monogram and Republic. He’s still there on the landscape of the old Corriganville Ranch[2], in some movie cowboy Valhalla.

This son of Oklahoma wrote two memoirs, several western novels, five screenplays, published more than one hundred fifty songs, tried his hand at writing a newspaper comic strip, was a major influence in the “urban cowboy” music explosion in the 1960s and mentor to neo-cowboy singer/songwriters like Dave Van Ronk (“The Mayor of MacDougal Street”)[3], Robert “Zim Dillon” Zimmerman [4] and Elliott “Bronco Bill Eldon” Adnopoz [5]. He appeared in fifty films, from 1938’s Where the Coyotes Sing to his sad cameo role as muleskinner Catfish Marmaduke in How the West Was Won in 1963. They wanted him for one of the two frontier troubadours in Jane Fonda’s comedy-western Cat Ballou in 1965, but he was too ill to do the role. It went to Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as the Sunrise Kid and Professor Sam the Shade [6].

During all his time working in film, Woody Guthrie also wrote and sang a significant number of them on screen. His compositions have been recorded by numerous popular singers including such diverse ones as Pete Seeger, Bing Crosby, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Michael Feinstein, Kinky Friedman and Marty Stuart. He made guest appearances on country music shows such as the Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Ole Opry and the Ozark Jubilee, as well as on the more urban The Steve Allen Show. Because of his politics, he had to wait until 1979 before being inducted posthumously into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Then, in 1988, Woody was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.


Guthrie's desire to become a country-western entertainer drove him westward to California, a few months before his second daughter was born in July 1937. He wanted to emulate the success of fellow Oklahomans like cowboy-actor Tom Mix, actor-musician Gene Autry, and the renowned Will Rogers, the renowned Cherokee cowboy, humorist and movie star.

In the Los Angeles area Woody and his cousin Jack Guthrie became a popular singing duo and in August 1937 earned a show on radio station KFVD, Hollywood. Jack had to leave the show for more remunerative work to support his family, so Woody formed a new team with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman, a young woman whose family was close to Jack and had taken Woody as a friend. The “Woody and Lefty Lou Show” drew thousands of fan letters over a few months time and earned the two young performers a little bit of money. During the Depression, the image of the cowboy, especially that of the cheerful singing buckaroo, was a powerful one that represented tradition, independence, faith and renewal to people dislocated by economic adversity. The radio producers wanted Guthrie to adopt that stereotype, but he preferred to build his own persona.

In 1938, Guthrie moved his wife and children to Los Angeles. That same year Lefty Lou left the radio show due to poor health. This left Guthrie at loose ends, and he contemplated wandering up the San Joaquin Valley to visit the migrant camps. This was not to be. Instead, his life took a different turning: Hollywood called. In fact, A producer from Monogram called and made an appointment for Guthrie to meet with him at the studio.

He was cast in 1938’s Where the Coyotes Sing. Woody Guthrie was now a working Hollywood contract actor. His wife was ecstatic that he was finally doing something that could produce a steady and reliable income.

According to scandal-monger Kenneth Anger’s Gower Gulch Babylon (sequel to his Hollywood Babylon volumes), contradicting Guthrie’s own version of the story in his highly fictionalized memoir Bound for Glories, Guthrie was drawn inadvertently into the occultist circle around rocket scientist Jack Parsons. There, supposedly, he first encountered the notorious western and scientifiction pulp fictioneer Lafayette Ron Hubbard and began a casual friendship that culminated in Guthrie’s involvement in Dianetics and Scientology in the 1950s. Guthrie had turned to Hubbard’s organization and treatments as he suffered from increased problems with Huntington’s Chorea. Despite higher and higher (and more expensive) levels of auditing and pronouncements of being “clear,” his life ended in California state mental institutions. Anger’s description fairly vibrates in its Schadenfreude. Many of his claims have been called into question and debated since the books’ initial publications.

Arlen Guthrie, himself a noted actor and singer/songwriter, has noted that “Anger’s version has as much validity as those stories about my father being a Communist that floated around during the McCarthy era.” Remember Groucho Marx's comment, during the blacklisting era, that Moses’ name had to be removed from the Ten Commandments’ writers credits because he’d crossed the Red Sea. According to the son, his father was a rationalist who didn’t have time for either that old time religion or the occult. What attracted him to Dianetics had been its aura of the scientific. He had actually met Hubbard on the set of one of his first films at Monogram, Bronco Buddies, which had been expanded from one of Hubbard’s western pulp stories. This may have been during the production of The Secret of Treasure Island, the 1938 Columbia serial adapted from Hubbard's unpublished novel, Murder at Pirate Castle. The Secret of Treasure Island is better known as the basis of the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Revenge of the Jeddaks (1983), last in their John Carter of Mars “Barsoom Wars” series.

It reminds me of Woody in El Quivera Quisling (1943), not a modern-day western, where the Kaiser’s secret agents (medicine showman Professor Reichenbach and his “daughter” Gertrude, as played by my favorite silver screen villain Lionel Atwill and Hillary Brooke) try to secure a secret radium mine for an Imperial German “hellfire” weapon circa 1876. Co-scripted by Guthrie, he had quite a good speech on the evils of militarism and empire.

This Land was Made for You and Me

Back in Hollywood, he was in an assortment of oaters until the crisis of the attack on Pearl Harbor. His friend Cisco Houston wanted him to join the Merchant Marine with him, and Guthrie was sorely tempted to do so. He had already put the sign “This Machine Kills Fascists” on the front of his guitar. Mary Guthrie would have none of it, lambasting him for wanting to flee his marriage and responsibilities. So he stayed in Hollywood, but the urge to run stayed with him too. They divorced in 1943.

The war made Guthrie feel super-patriotic. If he wasn’t to drop everything and enlist in one of the services, then he’d plunge into a flurry of song-writing with a patriotic spirit, singing at the Hollywood Canteen and at the defense factories (no problem with his security pass then) and with the USO. He fought the Nazis at home in his films too, like El Quivera Quisling (1943), the dreamlike fantasy Sagebrush Sixth Column [7] (1944) adapted from the Robert A. Heinlein [8] story, and the Two-Gun Bob-scripted Hour of the Desert Dragon (1945) and Vultures of Whapeton (1946)[9].


By 1950, Guthrie was showing symptoms of Huntington's, and his creativity as well as his personal and family life slowly disintegrated. His legendary inclination to rootlessness increased; this produced near impossible tensions with his second wife Marguerite de Nuit (born Marjorie Greenblatt), a dancer with Martha Graham whom he had married in 1945 after their meeting at a Popular Front gathering in Los Angeles. They divorced, leaving their three children (Arlen, Joad and Nora) with Marguerite.

At this time, he had a short stint as host on the television series “Death Valley Days,” an anthology series that had begun in 1930 when listeners were first transported back to the pioneering days of the “Twenty Mule Teams” when the “Old Ranger” and cast stepped up to the microphones of the NBC Blue Radio Network.. The television incarnation ran from 1952 to 1972, and was hosted by “Old Ranger” Stanley Andrews, Ronald Reagan and Dale Robertson. Guthrie took the role of the “Old Ranger” from Andrews in 1953 and returned it to him in 1955.

During his approximately thirteen years of hospitalization and following his death on October 3, 1967, numerous tributes increased his fame and recognition. He was elected in 1966 to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1979, he was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame and in 1988 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2000 the Recording Industry Association of America named “This Land Is Your Land” as the third most important song written in the twentieth century, essential for teaching appreciation of music in the lives of Americans.


Bibliography:

Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glories (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943).

Woody Guthrie (edited by Arlen Guthrie), Hard Travelin’ (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1986).

Nora Guthrie and Elijah Wald, eds., Woody Guthrie Songs (New York: TRO Ludlow Music, 1999).

Ed Cray, Woody Guthrie: A Movie Cowboy’s Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Discography:

Woody Guthrie: The Moe Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40112, 1999. Woody Guthrie: The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944-1949, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SF 40046, 1994. Woody Guthrie’s Best Beloved Songs for Mothers and Children, Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 45035, 1995 Woody Guthrie’s Songs from the Movies, Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 45036, 2001 Dust Bowl Reunions (1940), reissued by Budda Records 74465 99724 2, 2000. Best Of The War Years (recorded between 1944 & 1947) Stardust 5854134, 2003 Fairfax Avenue: Billy Bragg & Rodger Wilco (from Woody Guthrie’s unpublished poems and notes) Elektra / Wea B000007NC0, 1998 The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie (sung by various, including Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger & the Chartists, Dave van Ronk, Zim Dillon, Joan Baez, the Limelighters, the Turtles and Bronco Bill Eldon) Vanguard Records B000000EBR, 1972 (reissue 2005)

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