Academic journal article Journalism History

Woody Guthrie

Academic journal article Journalism History

Woody Guthrie

Article excerpt

A Dust Bowl Representative in the Communist Party Press

Woody Guthrie is widely recognized as a folk singer and songwriter of "This Land Is Your Land" as well as countless other songs, ranging from political material to labor anthems. Less recognized are his contributions to the Communist press, especially his writings for the San Francisco-based People's World newspaper, for which he composed a regular column and cartoons for eighteen months. This study examines the content of these writings mainly during 1939, when his commentary focused on the conditions and experiences of California's Dust Bowl migrants. It discusses his role as an advocate for migrants, his unique methods of spelling and composition, and feedback by People's World readers to his writings, which were composed during a period of tumult in the state.

Arriving in California in 1937, Woody Guthrie was a selfdescribed "dust bowl refugee" but had yet to produce the songs and writings associated with the southwestern diaspora. But shortly after setding in the Los Angeles area and during a subsequent journey to New York City, he produced material during his late twenties that would historically associate him with the dust bowl migration and establish him as an American icon. "This Land Is Your Land," which he composed in 1940, is recognized as both an alternative national anthem and a reaction to private property rights, and his dust bowl ballads joined John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Langes photography as cultural representations of the Depression-era dust bowl migration and settlement. Later, he became ill with and died from Huntington's chorea, allowing greater understanding of the genetic disorder. But shortly after his arrival in California, he established himself in a role less recognized during his life and during later decades: a contributor to People's World, the former San Francisco-based Communist Party newspaper, in which he wrote a regular column and drew cartoons from May 1939 to November 1940.1

Guthrie's largest collection of unexamined material during this period, these writings and cartoons offer potential insights about him. During his tenure with the People's World, he was first formally recorded, wrote many well-known songs (including many dust bowl ballads and "This Land Is Your Land"), and contributed notes to the songbook Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People.2 Meanwhile, the Depression was concluding along with the dust bowl migration that inspired much of his early work. During this period, he composed 253 commentary articles and ninety-eight cartoons for the newspaper, both labeled "Woody Sez." Most frequently the small cartoons, which took up only six square inches - 2 inches wide by 3 inches deep - appeared on the bottom right corner of page one with a jump referencing the reader to "More Woody Sez" on page four, where his column was in the bottom right corner of the page.3 While biographies have noted his contributions to the World and folklore scholars have critically examined his songwriting, others have examined his artwork and his role in the Communist community, but none have critically examined his newspaper writings.4

This study addresses this shortcoming with a textual analysis of Guthrie's Peoples World writings and cartoons during this period, specifically focusing on May to December 1939, during which 174 of his 253 articles in the People's World appeared. Concentrating on this period, when he was most focused on the dust bowl migration and its consequences, leads to a more profound understanding of his role as a representative of the dust bowl migration culture, which he achieved through the telling of first-hand accounts as well as anecdotal folklore. Beyond achieving a greater understanding of his newspaper contributions, this study also provides insights into his accounts of social problems of the late 1930s and policies that he considered remedies to socio-economic ills faced by the migrants. …

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