David Carradine is Woody Guthry in Bound for Glory, a film version of his autobiography

The On-the-Road Authenticity
of Woody Guthrie

David Carradine is Woody Guthry in Bound for Glory, a film version of his autobiography

     Woody Guthrie persona was one of a rambler, a hobo, a Dust Bowl refugee, a folk poet and social protester who had seen some hard traveling, a drifter who was going down that long lonesome road because he wasn’t going to be treated this-a way. Guthrie’s life, songs and writings created an American archetype that been the pattern for a host of ramblers, protest singers and singer/songwriters -- performers such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg. What makes Guthrie’s work so powerful is its aura of authenticity and truth, which is grounded in his experiences traveling on the roads and rails of the United States.

     Although Guthrie performed on the radio and in concert, he always emphasized that what he was presenting was not an act but his actual experiences. As he says,

Walking down the big road, no money, no job, no home, no nothing, nights I slept in jails, and the cells were piled high with young boys, strong men and old men. They talked and they sung and they told the story of their lives -- how it used to be, how it got to be, how the home went to pieces, how the young wife died or left, how Dad tried to kill himself, how the banks sent out tractors and tractored down the houses. So somehow I picked up an old rusty guitar and started to picking and playing the songs I heard and making up new ones about what folks said.

     Guthrie’s songs came from the people he met while he was traveling. The songs are the voices and stories of the people he met along the way, rather than constructed works of art by an artist. His songs are not conscious works of art, but actual presentations of his own experiences. Guthrie locates the source of their creation outside of himself and in the voices of those around him. Instead of being created for his performance, his songs create -- or actually compel -- his performance. Folklorist Alan Lomax carries this a step further.

Woody has never tried to be original, in the sense of the sophisticated songwriter. Like all folk poets, he uses familiar tunes, re-works old songs, adding new lines and phrases out of the folk-say of the situation that demands the new song. He feels his function is to sum up and crystallize popular sentiment, to act as the voice of the common man. Although his songs are conversational in tone, they have a truth, an authenticity, and a punch which no other poet of this age can match.

     Guthrie’s works, Lomax says, are not his own but a product of the "folk-say of the situation that demands the new song." The force behind Guthrie’s songs is not Guthrie’s artistry, but "the voice of the common man;" the collective spirit of the American people that compels Guthrie to put their thought and expressions into words. By negating the role Guthrie plays in the creation of his songs, Lomax increases their expressive force. Guthrie’s folk songs are not the artificial creations of a sophisticated songwriter; instead, they are the authentic expressions of collective society. This subsumes Guthrie’s work beneath the level of discussion and into the level of accepted truth and makes his perspectives and criticisms unassailable. It is not up to us to questions whether "this land was made for you and me" or "if this is the best way to grow our good fruit." As a conveyer of the folk spirit, Guthrie’s perspective is equated with the truth.

     This is important, because Guthrie’s political views are certainly outside the center/conservative politics that dominate the United States today. Because of his union building and his association with the Communist Party, Woody Guthrie is someone that anyone currently running for president would consider an extreme radical. His ideas would be de-legitimized because he would be placed outside the accepted and reasonable political spectrum. However, his role as "the voice of the common man" makes it impossible for us to reject him. Although his songs have been neutered in a number of ways (click here to see an example), Guthrie’s songs remain unassailable; his is the voice of truth, a truth grounded in what he heard out on the road.


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