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Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain

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GUEST,Phil d'Conch 21 Nov 18 - 05:54 PM
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Subject: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 05:54 PM

Write those words on the palm of your hand.

Reader advisory: This thread is not a safe space and there are no songs.

This, and the Who was Hal 'Pappy' Horton? thread are a fuller examination of Hokum-Definition or sources? where that minstrel/vaudeville form was being redefined as “...a sort of black vaudeville...” while completely ignoring the biographies of artists such as Irving Berlin, Wade Mainer and The Woodrow Wilson Guthrie hisself.

"Woody" as “Tom Joad” is perhaps one of America's greatest hokum characters. Unfortunately his (auto)biographies are so overcome with hero worship and fictional interludes it's as if the purely nonfictional biography has yet to be written. Hence the title of this thread.

Woody Guthrie relocated from Pampa, Texas to Burbank, California in 1937 two years ahead of The Grapes of Wrath and the arrival Tom Joad on the pop culture scene. At that time he entertained the extended Guthrie and Crissman families under the minstrelsy pen name of “Rastus Brown.”


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 05:56 PM

Beginning and ending with Kaufman as the author's analysis of Bound for Glory is head and shoulders above the other Klein and Cray:

“The most disturbing thing about this passage is not the hideous minstrel dialect, but rather the implication that Guthrie had been educated out of racsim at such a young age. He perpetuated this myth in his interviews with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress Recordings, on which he is plainly uncomfortable in discussing the issue of race. He betrays a lingering tendency toward sterotype as he attempts to present a childhood untainted by racsim: “Ever since I was a kid growing up I've always found time to stop and talk to these colored people because I found them to be full of jokes––what I mean, wisdom.” On the recordings he juggles his own faux naiveté and the rewriting of his racist childhood with equal awkwardness: “I'd never hardly pass an Indian or a colored boy, because I'm telling you the truth, I learned to like them....

In spite of all these protestations, it is clear that when he fled the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s and landed in California, Guthrie was quite unconcerned about his own racism. His KFVD songbooks indicate that he happily sang about "niggers" in songs like "Little Liza Jane" and "darkies" in "Kitty Wells." Minstrel dialect and caricatures grace the pages of his crude homemade newspaper the The Santa Monica Social Register Examine 'Er (1937), in which jokes about "Rastus," "coons," "monkeys," "chocolate drops," and "all de Niggahs evawha" compete with slanderous descriptions of black men at the beach giving off "the Ethiopian smell":

We could dimly hear their chants
And we thought the blacks by chance,
Were doing a cannibal dance
This we could dimly see.
Guesss the sea's enternal pounding
Like a giant drum a-sounding
Set their jungle blood to bounding:
Set their native instincts free.


Guthrie's merciful comeuppance came at the hands of a member of his KFVD audience on October 20, 1937,...”
[Kaufman, pp.147-150]


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 05:59 PM

“Often the Guthrie and Crissman families would spend weekends together, going for long drives and having picnics at the beach. Woody invariably was the life of the party at such times, mugging and joking, very much on, jabbering away at Roy and Georgia and Aunt Laura and the rest. One evening, a family picnic at Santa Monica beach was interrupted when forty blacks pulled up in a truck and raced onto the beach, intent on routing the white picnickers––or so it seemed to Woody and the Crissmans. Roy called the police, who eventually came and chased the blacks away.

Woody, whose social conscience had been rather dormant since he'd made it in radio, celebrated the event with a little newspaper of the sort that he'd always produced for the friends of the Corncob Trio. It was a blatantly racist document called the “Santa Monica Examine 'Er.” The cover page was filled with cartoons of cliché jungle blacks, and it was followed by two pages of gossip columns with jokes like: “what makes a nigger's feet fly fastes'? Ansewer: A uniform.” And a report of the event by “Rastus Brown” which begins: “After Joe Louise [sic] done won de crown fo bein the wuhlds mos bestas boxuh, all de Niggas evawha automatickly got de idee dey wuz tuff too, so dey went out to celibrate how tough dey wuz. Santa Monica beach wuz de place an de white folks say dem coons got plum wile...”

The bulk of Woody's newspaper, though, was a long narrative poem, “Clippings from the Personal Diary of a Full-fledged Son of the Beach,” a parody of “Hiawatha” describing the events at Santa Monica that night. Considering that the poem was merely a five-finger exercise, something he tossed off between radio shows the day after the incident, it was a surprising––and disturbingly clever––piece of work. It begins:

As in leisure there reclining
In the firelight brightly shining
On a coney hot dog dining
On the ancient sands of time.
I was with fond friends and neighbors
There relaxing from their labors
(And the trip was quite a favor
'Cause I didn't have a dime.)


The saga continues through sixteen more eight-line stanzas. Forsaking his hot dog (“Man cannot live on buns alone”), he decides to go swimming and, while in the water, hears someone yell: “What is that Ethiopian smell/Upon the zephyrs, what a fright!”

We could dimly hear their chants
And we thought the blacks by chance,
Were doing a cannible dance
This we could but dimly see.
Goes the sea's eternal pounding
Like a giant drum a-sounding
Set their jungle blood to bounding;
Set their native instincts free.


Apparently, the “Santa Monica Examine 'Er” wasn't an isolated incident, either. On October 20, 1937, Woody received a letter from a listener...
[Klein, pp.94-95)]

Note: Klein's dates for Braddock-v-Louis; Guthrie's newspaper and KFVD's hiring of Jack Guthrie don't match up.


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 06:02 PM

“Despite his affable radio demeanor, Guthrie was still stiff with the prejudices of Okemah and Pampa. He casually referred to African-Americans as “niggers,” and once after an unpleasant clash with blacks on the beach at Santa Monica Bay, he typed up a “Santa Monica Social Register Examine 'Er and Society Section” in which “De Beach Combin' Repo'tah noted that “hot might in'rest you to know dat de 100yd. dark record was broke fo'teen times in fifteen minutes las' nite at Santy Monica Beach.”

His racism was unconscious and unexamined, a by-product of a boyhood spent not far from that part of Oklahoma known as “Little Dixie.” (Both Matt Jennings and Woody's Uncle Jeff    later remarked how they had to take pains not to use the word “nigger,” though Matt, practicing Catholic that he was, ignored racial differences.)

One evening Gutherie [sic] introduced a harmonica solo by its traditional name, “Run, Nigger, Run.”...
[Cray, p.108)]


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 06:05 PM

“After Joe Louise [sic] done won de crown fo bein the wuhlds mos bestas boxuh, all de Niggas evawha automatickly got de idee dey wuz tuff too, so dey went out to celibrate how tough dey wuz. Santa Monica beach wuz de place an de white folks say dem coons got plum wile...

James Braddock vs. Joe Louis, 22 June 1937
Negroes Keep L.A. Cops Busy
(By United Press)
LOS ANGELES, June 22.–Thirty thousand Los Angeles Negroes jammed Central avenue, their principle thoroughfare, tonight in a wild demonstration of joy over Joe Louis' victory over James J. Braddock.

The police department sent all available radio cars and traffic officers into the area.

“This celebration is a New Year's eve, Christmas, Fourth of July, and Hallowe'en all rolled into one.” commented one sweating policeman.

The crowd was noisy but good-natured.”
[San Bernadino Sun, 23 June 1937, p.17]

That was uptown. The Guthries were down at Santa Monica Beach (see following.)


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 06:14 PM

A Place of Celebration and Pain

That the Guthrie and Crissman families and “forty blacks” would be allowed on just any stretch of 1937 Southern California beach did not pass the test of reality with this reader.

Before any future authors write on the subject I would invite them to research Kaufman's own comments on the liminal nature of California's Okies and historian Alison Rose Jefferson's work on Santa Monica's so called “Ink Well.” ...And careful how and when you use that title if you please.

PDF:
http://alisonrosejefferson.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/AfAm-Beach-Description-REVMay2017-Final.pdf

Note: I've found no mention of Guthrie's newsletter in Dr. Jefferson's work so far. In my own family history such places aren't so much “black” as “non-white” and the racism worked in very much in all directions. There are no saintly races.

One largely debunked urban legend surrounding the Santa Monica Ink Well's origins is the very real, but not directly related, beating, shooting and arrest of African-American Arthur Valentine on a beach at the foot of Topanga Canyon. This is same canyon where so many of Woody Guthrie's friends and supporters would eventually settle and where Guthrie met his third wife. Afaik the area did not desegregate until the 1960s, begrudgingly, along with the all the rest.


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Joe Offer
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 08:15 PM

This thread is sorely in need of a better title. As is often the case, I'm left trying to figure out what's the point Phil d'Conch is making. I'm going to give a tentative rename to the title until Phil contacts me and gives a better suggestion. If he would register as a member of Mudcat and give contact information, I would privately ask him to clarify the thread title. Heck, I could even sometimes give him the ability to edit his posts, which can be quite valuable at times, even though I often disageee with him. [just contact me at joe@mudcat.org, Phil] I guess what he means to say, is that Guthrie reflected the racism of his time and his Oklahoma birthplace. Fair enough. I don't think Cray or Klein would disagree with that - their portrayals of Woody Guthrie were certainly not sugar-coated. Woody was no saint. But on the other hand, I do not think that racism is the defining element of the character of Woody Guthrie.

Phil refers to Cray and Klein and Kaufman, without explanation. I think he's referring for three Woody Guthrie biographies:
  • Woody Guthrie: A Life, by Joe Klein (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) - this is the only Woody biography I've read completely. I liked it. I don't find it to fit Phil's description of "so overcome with hero worship and fictional interludes." I'd agree that there were a lot of weirdities to the life and character of Woody Guthrie. Klein blames them chiefly on Guthrie's Huntington's chorea, which is a plausible explanation.
  • Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, by Ed Cray (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) - I admit that I got lost early in this book, and didn't finish it.
  • Woody Guthrie: American Radical, by Will Kaufman (Champaign: University of Illinois, 2011) - I think I have this book somewhere on some shelf, but I certainly didn't read it. Amazon says I bought the book in 2011 - it's part of the excellent Music in American Life series, so I'd better find it and read it.


Here's a review of Cray's book from the New Yorker, dated March 29, 2004:

Folk Hero
A new biography of Woody Guthrie.
By David Hajdu

The folksinger Arlo Guthrie likes to tell a story about his father, the legendary Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, at the age of fifty-five. When he was a toddler, Arlo says, Guthrie gave him a Gibson acoustic guitar for his birthday. Several years later, when the boy was old enough to hold it, Guthrie sat him down in the back yard of their house—they lived in Howard Beach, Queens—and taught him all the words to “This Land Is Your Land,” a song that most people likely think they know in full. The lyrics had been written in anger, as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Woody Guthrie deplored as treacle. In addition to the familiar stanzas (“As I went walking that ribbon of highway,” and so on), Guthrie had composed a couple of others, including this:

**{: .break one} ** One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple By the Relief Office I saw my people— As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me. **

“He wanted me to know what he originally wrote, so it wouldn’t be forgotten,” Arlo Guthrie has explained.

Like the defiant, vaguely socialistic original words to his best-known song, much of what Woody Guthrie was and did during his lifetime has been forgotten, supplanted by the stuff of nostalgic sentiment. “This Land Is Your Land,” purged of its earthy contrarianism, shows up with “God Bless America” on albums of patriotic music and in concerts by pops orchestras that accompany the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and its author’s face has been put on a United States postage stamp. Woody Guthrie, a contradictory man who vexed his family and his closest friends as much as he challenged the authorities—“I can’t stand him when he’s around,” Pete Seeger, his friend and also a bandmate for a time, once said, “but I miss him when he’s gone”—scarcely registers as a creature of human dimension. In the popular imagination, where he endures, more than half a century after his creative prime as a writer and singer, Guthrie seems more like Gypsy Davy, Rocky Mountain Slim, and other colorful folk heroes of the songs he sang. He functions as the embodiment of gritty American authenticity, the plainspoken voice of a romanticized heartland.

Guthrie was never really so authentic, as Ed Cray shows in “Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie” (Norton; $29.95), a work of tempered debunking that is the first notable Guthrie biography since Joe Klein’s “Woody Guthrie: A Life,” which started unravelling the lore in 1980. The Klein book, fans of classic rock will recall, was the beneficiary of a sweet plug on Bruce Springsteen’s 1986 boxed set of live recordings; in a halting, Okie-inflected voice, Springsteen complimented “this fella named Joe Klein,” before moving into an acoustic-guitar version of “This Land Is Your Land.” Springsteen was then in the process of molting his leather jacket and his urban ambitions to become a Guthrie-style troubadour of the mythic hinterland, a change that signified his maturation within the rock world.

John Steinbeck—“the Woody Guthrie of American authors,” as he has been called—revered his musical compatriot in polemical realism. In his introduction to “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People,” a book of Depression-era folk tunes compiled by the folklorist and activist Alan Lomax, Steinbeck praised Guthrie’s music for capturing “the American spirit,” and noted, “He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people.”

Guthrie’s people were in fact the upper-middle-class American élite. His father, Charley Guthrie, was a prosperous real-estate speculator and aspiring politician (a conservative Democrat and vehement anti-Communist) in Okemah, Oklahoma, a boomtown in the oil territory of the newly annexed state; at one time, he and his wife, Nora, owned as many as thirty rental properties, and they were the first people in town to purchase an automobile. Their third child, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, was born on July 14, 1912, twelve days after that year’s Democratic Presidential Convention, and named for the freshly nominated candidate. “Papa . . . swapped and traded, bought and sold, got bigger, spread out, and made more money,” Woody Guthrie recalled accurately in his often fanciful memoir, “Bound for Glory.” “We all liked the prettiest and best things in the store windows, and anything in the store was [ours] just for the signing.”

The hard times of the early nineteen-twenties devastated the Guthries, claiming the family’s property and the children’s buying privileges. Unpersuaded by his parents’ faith in capitalism, Guthrie eventually fell sway to the socialist utopianism that was attracting the attention of intellectuals, the young, the poor, and other disillusioned or idealistic Americans during the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties. He was a convert to disenfranchisement and always advocated the underprivileged with a proselyte’s zeal.

“Woody Guthrie,” like “Bob Dylan” and “Springsteen,” was essentially a self-invention made for the electronic media: after a few years of scrounging, singing for change, and passing himself off as a seer and a faith healer, Guthrie made his name doing a comedic hillbilly act on Los Angeles radio in 1937. He had moved to the city in the mid-thirties, a time when outlandishly hokey cowboy singers were a novelty craze—a way for the music and movie industries simultaneously to exploit and ridicule rural culture for the pleasure of the urban audience. Cray describes a Los Angeles “awash in country-hillbilly-cowboy-western music,” with radio stations broadcasting the likes of the Stuart Hamblen Gang, the Covered Wagon Jubilee, the Beverly Hillbillies, the Saddle Pals, the Bronco Busters, the Saddle Tramps, and the Sons of the Pioneers. Woody Guthrie rode the marketplace like a saddle-sore poke on a long-tailed dogie (or some such), crooning cowboy songs with his cousin Oklahoma (Jake Guthrie) and a cowgirl, Lefty Lou (his friend Maxine Crissman), playing the spoons, spinning tall tales, and reciting what he called his “cornpone philosophy” in a theatrical Okie drawl that he employed to disarming effect for the rest of his life.

Guthrie’s inchoate socialist leanings grew into a deep commitment to the labor movement and to the social and political adventurism of the American Communist Party. (Guthrie never joined the Party—his independence was such that he “was not affiliated with anything,” according to his sister Mary Jo; he did follow the Party line, however, down to belittling Roosevelt as a warmonger during the period of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, and he wrote a column called “Woody Sez,” in hillbilly dialect, for the C.P.U.S.A. organs Peoples World and Daily Worker.) The first of Guthrie’s three wives, Mary, lamented his politicization as “his downfall as an entertainer,” and she had a point: the more he focussed on rousing the masses, the less he pleased the crowd. Guthrie’s modest popular following diminished; at the same time, through politics, he found his voice.

“I never did make up many songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky,” Guthrie wrote in “Bound for Glory,” “but at first it was funny songs of what’s all wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in the country was thinking.”

In a letter to Alan Lomax quoted (with its creative grammar and spelling) by Klein, Guthrie expanded on this thought:

**{: .break one} ** A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is, or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is—that’s folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the politicians couldn’t find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work. **

Indeed, folk music has traditionally served as an outlet for native discontent, often expressed in coded language (the boll weevil stands in for field hands, the farmer’s son is the government). Still, there is a great difference between the folk songs that circulated in Woody Guthrie’s day and the music he wrote; that is, the very fact that he wrote it. Folk music (including country, blues, and other vernacular styles) was supposed to be anonymous—a collective art passed along orally from singer to singer, generation to generation, sometimes culture to culture. From the vantage point of today, when kids with their first guitars start writing songs before they learn to play other tunes, it is difficult to process how exceptional it was for a folk artist such as Woody Guthrie to have created a vast repertoire of deeply idiosyncratic works. (Many Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood songwriters of the thirties and earlier were as skilled and prolific as Guthrie, but they were working in a different vein, writing to order for professional singers.) Guthrie brought the authorial imperative to vernacular music in America.

Guthrie, like many American musicians, was immeasurably indebted to black music. In an unpublished manuscript quoted by Cray, he recalled that one of his earliest childhood memories was of hearing a “Negro minstrel jazzy band blowing and tooting and pounding drums up and down our street,” a sound that inspired him to “sing out the first song I ever made up by my own self.” At the age of thirteen, he discovered the blues; according to what Guthrie told Lomax in an interview for the Library of Congress (released on a three-CD set in 1989), he studied a “big ol’ colored boy” shining shoes in front of a barbershop and singing what Guthrie found to be “undoubtedly the lonesomest music I ever run on to in my life.” Each experience informs one of the two main categories of Guthrie’s songs. His light tunes (many of them, such as “Car Song” and “Jiggy Jiggy Bum,” written expressly for children) have a free, joyful, improvised feeling; his ballads of hard life have the impenitent rawness of Mississippi Delta blues, along with the blues’ harmonic structure (three chords, tonic, subdominant, and dominant) and, in many cases, the blues’ metre:

**{: .break one} ** Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain Had to throw a bucket of sand in her face Just to bring her back again. **

The Popular Front saw artistic refinement as a mark of bourgeois élitism, and so did Guthrie. “Woody believed in simplicity like people in the Bible Belt believe in their scripture,” Guthrie’s schoolmate Matt Jennings tells Cray. Guthrie seemed to think of musical complexity as corrupt, and he wrote most of his songs with just a few chords, in the key of G. (He would slide a capo up the neck of his guitar to change keys, much as his nemesis Irving Berlin, who could play only in F-sharp, used a special mechanism built into his piano to transpose his songs.) Guthrie’s melodies, many of which were adapted from traditional sources, are as basic and memorable as schoolyard chants, and the words are just as biting. (The music to the opening phrase of “This Land Is Your Land” simply follows the first four notes of the major scale, making the tune a model exercise for beginning musicians.) His lyrics, similarly, seek to convey a guileless cleverness and intensity—a pridefully untrained intelligence. Grammar and syntax give way, rhymes miss, and accents fall awkwardly, all contributing to the songs’ effect of unadorned veracity, as in “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” one of Guthrie’s many tunes about the Grand Coulee Dam:

**{: .break one} ** I clumb the rocky canyon where the Columbia River rolls, Seen the salmon leaping the rapids and the falls. The big Grand Coulee Dam in the State of Washington Is just about the biggest thing that man has ever done. **

Once Hitler ventured into the Soviet Union and Stalin joined forces with the Allied powers, Guthrie became patriotic; he supported the United States’ involvement in the Second World War and pasted a hand-painted sign onto the front of his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” He kept it there after the war, in reference to another target: the cultural power brokers who, in his view, oppressed folk artists by rewarding sleek professionalism. Guthrie, now living in New York, challenged the commercial aesthetic of the pre-rock era through a performance style that was not merely plaintive, like that of countless singing cowboys in the movies, but almost combatively anti-musical. In the dozens of recordings that he made between 1940 and 1952 (many of which have been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in conscientiously engineered and annotated CDs), his singing and playing are jarring: his voice bone-gray, dry and stiff, and indifferent to pitch; his guitar work spare and ragged, and frequently out of tune. Aesthetically, Guthrie was less a socialist than an anarchist, contemptuous of the prevailing rules and standards.

For all his advocacy of the common man, Guthrie sought to be recognized as someone exceptional. Agnes (Sis) Cunningham, his sometime bandmate (along with Seeger, Bess Hawes, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and others) in the Almanac Singers, the leftist vocal group of the forties, told me a few years ago that Guthrie was “determined to become a legend in his own time.” (Cray quotes Hawes as saying that Guthrie was “desperate” to become “a big, important person.”) After all, he did not call his autobiography “Bound for Obscurity,” and the book is dense with folksy anecdotes that dramatize his innate superiority to government officials, businesspeople, other authority figures, and most of his friends. “Bound for Glory” captures Guthrie vividly; he was fearsomely gifted and ambitious, and also egalitarian—a most uncommon man.

Woody Guthrie succeeded in becoming a legend in the last years of his life, as young people of the postwar era, seeking their own cultural identity, veered away from the coolly sophisticated, urbane pop on their parents’ hi-fis in favor of more idiomatic music grounded in rural America—folk, country, the blues, and their hybrid, rock and roll. Students by the thousands massed in Washington Square Park each week to strum along to “This Land Is Your Land,” and to look for Woody Guthrie, the exemplar of the folkie ideal. He was unable to take active part in his newfound idolhood, however. Debilitated by Huntington’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system, Guthrie became a tragic figure to his young acolytes: an American original cut down before his time, seemingly gone mad (wildly erratic behavior being a symptom of the disease)—a living amalgam of Hank Williams and Friedrich Nietzsche. When the nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan arrived in New York from Minnesota in January of 1961, he told his friends that he was going to meet his god, Woody. “He’s the greatest holiest godliest one in the world,” Dylan said of Guthrie around that time—a “genius genius genius genius.”

Reflecting on the period later, Dylan explained, “Woody turned me on romantically. . . . What drew me to [him] was that, hearing his voice, I could tell he was very lonesome, very alone, and very lost out in his time. That’s why I dug him. Like a suicidal case or something. It was like an adolescent thing—when you need somebody to latch onto, you reach out and latch onto them.”

With today’s rock and pop feeling homogeneous, and with hip-hop now twenty years old, popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream; something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo, harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal training—that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie did. If few nineteen-year-olds today think of latching onto Guthrie, his spirit may be closer than they know. ?


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Subject: RE: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Joe Offer
Date: 21 Nov 18 - 08:47 PM

Book review, By Brittany Bounds, Texas A&M University

Woody Guthrie: American Radical, by Will Kaufman. Champaign: University of Illinois, 2011. Pp. 304. $29.95 (cloth) Woody Guthrie is an American folk icon, best known as the father of “This Land is Your Land” — a song often considered the second national anthem. Will Kaufman, author of Woody Guthrie, American Radical, demonstrates that this song, which is sanitized when sung today, was originally a stinging criticism of American capitalism. Through his lifetime Guthrie “disguised his bite with a veneer of faux naivete,” allowing him to expose harsh realities with safe melodies and playful words (Kaufman 3-4). Guthrie’s musical impact was able to become memorable through music’s ability to penetrate consciousness and culture, which attests to the staying power of his fame and his songs.

Will Kaufman is a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, England. He has a personal investment in this manuscript, as Kaufman is an amateur folksinger as well, showcasing his talents both in the classroom and during his musical lecture titled “Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin',” which he has presented across Britain and Europe. His brother is also the better-known America blue-grass guitarist, Steve Kaufman. This book is published at an opportune time when Oklahoma is finally welcoming Woody Guthrie back as one of its own, as the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa has bought the Guthrie archives from his children and is building a permanent exhibition to his legacy. Kaufman was able to write this biography with the assistance of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives and the BMI-Woody Guthrie Fellowship, as both allowed him to research Guthrie’s in numerable writings and songs. The book is also supported by the living mainstays of folk music — Pete Seeger, Ralph McTell, and others.

And for good reason. The book is rich in Guthrie’s lyrics and personal writings and successfully incorporates other folk artists such as Pete Seeger into the narrative. Kaufman focuses more on Guthrie’s political convictions than his personal biography, and it lacks the depth of character a traditional biography would display. He skims over Guthrie’s personal connections with his family, three wives and his children, as all appear only in brief passages. Kaufman only gives an occasional nod to Woody’s childhood and formative experiences. Instead, he provides an insightful analysis of Woody’s lyrics and mordant commentary on American ironies and injustices. He was hired to compose songs for the Library of Congress for projects under the guidance of Alan Lomax, such as the Dust Bowl and the Columbia River during the Depression. He also actively wrote songs against the unjust convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti, and contributed union songs through the collaboration of People’s Songs. Many of Guthrie’s radical leanings got him fired or scrutinized under the Red Scare. His songbook project “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People” was not even published until his death in 1967. Kaufman analyzes these debates over the radicalness of folk music and Guthrie’s influence on the genre. Although Guthrie was an avowed Stalinist communist, his radical leanings have traditionally been downplayed in biographies. Kaufman, however, has restored Guthrie to his political convictions, even if they seemed a bit confused. He unashamedly brings out Guthrie’s contradictions. For example, although he opposed World War II in its infancy and supported Stalin, Guthrie became strongly anti-fascist after Pearl Harbor, and later in the war sang that America should have stopped the war much sooner.

Kaufman usually leaves his own personal convictions out of his narrative, which leaves a relatively objective account of the development of folk music. The book is organized chronologically, with the chapters arranged thematically around musical chapters of Guthrie’s life. Although twenty-one pictures are included, they are clustered near the bookends, and would be even more welcome in a larger quantity spread throughout. It is unusual that so many of the visuals are of situations around Guthrie and not particularly of him (only seven are of Guthrie himself). More pictures of Guthrie himself would have made for better illustration. The two biographies written of Woody Guthrie’s life by Joe Klein and Edwin Robbin would serve the reader looking for a more personal biography better. Kaufman instead presents a thorough analysis of Guthrie’s radical leanings as presented through his music and associations. It is a valuable book for folk musicians and aficionados alike.

Sources


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Ross Campbell
Date: 23 Nov 18 - 09:51 PM

Will Kaufmann has continued to research and publish material on Woody Guthrie. I only managed to catch a live show once, when he premiered a show in Preston (WOODY GUTHRIE: THE LONG ROAD TO PEEKSKILL). Very effective, illustrated with appropriate slides and occasional songs from Will himself. Martin Carthy came over from Yorkshire just to introduce the show.

https://www.willkaufman.com/

Just discovered last night that my former workmate Ivan McKeon had taken Will's American Studies course at UCLAN (University of Central Lancashire)
Ross


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Big Al Whittle
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 02:06 AM

we can only be initially what our environment and culture makes us. The point is that he was an artist and aspired to be a comet like force of originality and decency that very few other people imagined possible.

I think what I recognised in Guthrie was that same unflinching earnest desire to be an artist that you get in James Joyce.
'I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly asI can.'

It doesn't sit well in any society. I remember reading Ronnie Gilberts comments about how nasty and resentful of the middle class origins of the Seeger set , Woody was.

Its not for us to forgive or condemn Woody. We can try and understand the origins of his art, what life gave him to work with. But if you miss the fact of his genius, (something which Rommie and Pete both freely granted) you are missing the main point.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 06:24 PM

Whoopsy!

Dropped a paragraph, or three, in there somewhere. Yup, so far it's:

Guthrie, Woody, Bound for Glory, (New York: E.P. Dutton)(as cited in Kaufman.)
Klein, Joe, Woody Guthrie: A Life, (New York: Knopf, 1980)
Cray, Ed, Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie , (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006)
Kaufman, Will, Woody Guthrie: American Radical , (Springfield: U. of Illinois, 2015)

And yes, my thread title sucked. The new one was never on the list; seems a wee bit appropriative as-is.

“Folklore” because that's what the (auto)biographies read like to someone not sharing Woody Guthrie's, and by extension his biographers', politics. Kennett was a real place and Hal Horton a real person. They aren't 'based on a true story.'

“A Place of Celebration and Pain” - I couldn't improve on given the who, what, when, where and why at hand.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Steve Shaw
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 06:35 PM

Woody appears to be a prophet without honour in his own country according to the polemical start of this thread. Cheers for the corrective, Joe. Some of us Brits see Woody as a shining light in a country that seems to have been rabidly right-wing for at least two centuries.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 06:43 PM

To paraphrase naval historian Jonathan Parshall:

Great heroes create their own mythos. Pivotal events such as Howell Terence's protest letter to KFVD are the lenses through which we view history. Any flaws in those lenses distort our perception and understanding of these events and their place in history.

The Tom Joad character first appeared at the time of end stage minstrelsy and vaudeville when players began to “lighten up” as white hobos and hillbillies. The hokey accents hardly needed to change at all.

I began thinking one of the four (auto)biographers spoke directly to the subject but no. Now I'm thinking it was Elijah Wald on the blues or Bahamas or... still reading.

As noted above, Rastus Brown and the Examine Er did not occur in isolation. Run, Nigger, Run ; Howell Terence and suspension from KFVD follow a few months later. The whole Guthrie family act getting summarily dismissed from XELO-Tijuana, post epiphany, for much the same attitude towards their host country and coworkers is just a few months after that.

I'll cover the latter events in the Hal Horton thread but, aiy caramba, between Steinbeck, Guthrie, his biographers and you lot, one would not know there were labour politics south of 1937 Los Angeles city limits!?!


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Steve Shaw
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 07:05 PM

You have a problem, pal.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: meself
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 07:30 PM

Trying to follow this, Phil ... so your point is, in a nutshell, that you think Woody was a big phony - do I have that right?


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Joe Offer
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 09:19 PM

I think Joe Klein might agree that Woody was pretty much a phony until his Los Angeles radio gig ended. He seemed to be all about making money, and not much more. But he seemed to go through a transformation after losing the radio job. He took his time traveling up through the Central Valley of California, and spent a lot of time in labor camps - that's where the transformation took place. I don't think anyone would say Woody was easy to get along with, but he was one of the first well-known Americans in the 20th century to show compassion for the working class.

-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,paperback
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 10:05 PM

First they built the roads to remove them to the Indian Territory then the Sooners took the Indian Territory and turned it to dust. Then The Sooners came in droves, actually driving cars, West, landing in the Colombia River country to, first, dam the river, then farm the desert land, again. Well all up and down that river there lived the last remnant of free living Indians. Now they're gone too.

Seems bad luck followed this fellar, Guthrie.

Oh P.S. between those two mighty dams, (Bonneville and Grand Coulee), they refined the plutonium for that other worthy public project, Manhattan.

Why is it everywhere these locust land everything dies?

Ah well, Woody wrote some nice songs about it.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,paperback
Date: 24 Nov 18 - 10:19 PM

Roll on Columbia: Woody Guthrie & the Bonneville power Administration


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Joe Offer
Date: 25 Nov 18 - 02:20 AM

It must be hard work, being a purist.
I admit to wondering if Woody had any second thoughts about writing songs to support a water project that did so much to change the face of the earth.
Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.
-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,paperback^
Date: 25 Nov 18 - 05:16 AM

Regarding the Bonneville Dam; my dad remembered when it was being built that it looked like a anthill there was so many men working on it. He also told me about the Indians drying their salmon along side the Columbia, and added with disgust, how it was all swarming with flies.

It's hard to say what goes through a man's mind, but Pete Seeger seemed to have a pretty good handle on Woody when he said:

'There's good and bad things about everything in the universe I expect. It all depends where you are and when you are, who you are and what you are to decide if its good or bad'

Now my mom and her first husband had bought a Philco months in advance of the arrival of power, and her dad, a Frigidaire, which by the way, ran nice and cold all the way up until the late 90's, so there you go.

But the suspicious side of me suspected politician Roosevelt wanted to propagate radios for his Fireside Chats.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 25 Nov 18 - 05:51 PM

Tom Joad is a myth. Woody Guthrie was a man. The former is literature and the latter is history when I'm handed homework or a term paper to fact check.

Why teach your myths as your history? Makes zero sense.

Why teach another's myth as your own history? Makes... less than zero sense.

So past the ad hominem; conspiracy theory; rewordings &c., we have a thread about the Guthrie and Crissman families' place in the very real African-American celebration and pain of 22 June 1937; and that event's correct place in the timeline (re: Klein, KFVD, XELO, &c &c.)

They knew, and cared, who Joe Louis was; what he represented and what beach they were on and why... even if y'all don't. Also big supporters of the "old-timey" songs and your primary sources for the current narrative of what follows. Watch this space.

IMO the rest of the comments are best addressed in the individual biography threads.

Afaik, none of the additional biographies posted above mention Rastus Brown or the Santa Monica Examiner 'Er.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Joe Offer
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 01:42 AM

Still not getting your point, Phil. It's customary to start things out with some sort of expository chapter, or at least a paragraph. I'm trying to figure out where you're going with your Tom Joad/Woody Guthrie link. Yes, Woody wrote a song about Tom Joad after seeing the 1940 Grapes of Wrath movie. And yes, Woody grew up in Oklahoma and moved to Los Angeles - but Woody moved to LA to seek stardom, not to farm the Central Valley. So, where does the "Tom Joad myth" fit into all this?

I haven't read Cray and Kaufman, so I can't comment about them; but Joe Klein's biography doesn't mythologize Woody. Klein portrays Guthrie as a troubled person, perhaps made so by his Huntington's disease. Now, it's true that Woody's 1943 "hard-driving, truth-telling autobiography" Bound for Glory is generally viewed as self-aggrandizing myth - and David Carradine perpetuated that myth in the 1976 movie.

So, Phil, I think it would be good for you to take the time to explain to us where you're going with this.

-Joe Offer-


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Greg F.
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 10:30 AM

Its pretty obvious that Phil is going to slag Woody any which way he can and by any means necessary.

Question is why - and this thread says more about Phil than it does about Woody.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: meself
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 11:38 AM

Well, not everyone has to like Woody. But so far I can't make much sense out of this gumbo of 'minstrelsy/Tom Joad/Rastus Brown/Joe Louis/confrontation with Black men on beach leading to racist jokes ...' - other than, if we liked Woody, it's supposed to make us dislike Woody. Or something.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Greg F.
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 01:24 PM

Or something, indeed.

[apologies for multiple posts, not sure what's going on.)


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Steve Shaw
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 02:25 PM

The 05:51pm post was a concerted exercise in obscurantism. Don't stress about the bloke who posted it, chaps. We know that Woody was no saint and that he could let people down. Woody speaks to us through his songs. Let's all just take what we like from them.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Greg F.
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 02:29 PM

Hear, hear, Steve!


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,keberoxu
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 02:42 PM

Author Will Kaufman, at least
appears to meet with approval in the OP.

I had not heard of Mr. Kaufman before. If I read right,
he is a USA native teaching in the UK about USA culture.
Some of his other books, about American culture of one era or another,
have had UK publishers.

Kaufman's website includes a list of his performing schedule.
There are numerous performances scheduled in the UK.

It might interest Mudcatters on the West Coast to know that
on February 16, 2019,
"Hard Times and Hard Travelin',"
one of several Woody Guthrie presentations available from Kaufman,
will be performed at Wyatt Theater at the
University of California Davis 's Department of Theater and Dance.
Will's Upcoming Gigs


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 03:57 PM

"Trying to follow this, Phil ... so your point is, in a nutshell, that you think Woody was a big phony - do I have that right?"

"Hokey"

“...“Woody, what on earth are you talking about? You've never harvested a grape in your life. You're an intellectual poet – all this singin' about jackhammers, if you ever got within five feet of a jackhammer it'd knock you on your ass. You scrawny little bastard, you're shitting the public: You never did a day's work in your life.” He'd say these things lightly, in jest – Gordon was one of Woody's staunchest fans, even to the point of having listened to him on the Model Tobacco show – and Woody usually took the jibes well enough, with a half smile and a shrug… but the message got through.” [Gordon Friesen]
[Cray, p. 213]


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 04:13 PM

Joe:

You've sure posted a lot for someone who's not read the material. It may be that you simply have nothing to contribute... but, just sticking with Klein:

Can you make sense of his timeline? I'm not assuming I'm right and he's wrong. Are you?

eg: If Rastus Brown was a response to Louis-Schmeling II which produced a similar commotion 22 June 1938, it would be after the Run, Nigger, Run incident and your assumed timeline for Guthrie's racial epiphany would then be completely wrong.

Drop cudgel, pick up a calendar.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Joe Offer
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 04:14 PM

So, Phil, I think you're disproving your own criticism of Cray, and I can state without a doubt that Joe Klein was not out to portray Woody as legendary.
And I think we all agree that Woody's Bound for Glory autobiography was a fable.
-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 04:15 PM

See 26 Nov 18 - 10:30 AM


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Steve Shaw
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 07:53 PM

I want to know, in very simple language, as I'm a very simple man, precisely what Phil's beef is with Woody. I have beefs with Woody myself, as any honest person would. Woody was a seriously flawed, seriously brilliant human being. Beethoven was an extremely antisocial, unhygienic man who drank too much white wine and who unfairly accused his friends of cheating him. Mozart was a childish man who was obsessed with poo and bare bottoms. Bach spent time in jail. Sibelius had to be dragged out of inns, where he feasted on lobster and champagne, by his wife. Caravaggio probably murdered someone and Gesualdo definitely did. Benjamin Britten took little boys into his bed. Schubert died of syphilis that he probably caught from prostitutes and he was careless about the very young age of some of his sexual conquests. I don't want to hear any more literary references or any more insinuations or any more crap about timelines, etc. Phil, piss or get off the pot. And when I say "Phil, piss or get off the pot" please note that no word in that sentence exceeds one syllable.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 26 Nov 18 - 08:35 PM

Phil d'Conch seems to have a very strange prose style, which makes it a bit hard to know what he's saying, apart from that he thinks Woody was a phony. It's not clear how far that implies that his songs are overrated or not.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,paperback^
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 01:00 AM

Phil d'Conch, sorry for clomping across your fine thread, Joe Offer made me do it.

    Careful....stick to the subject. -Joe Offer-


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Big Al Whittle
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 01:22 AM

Whatever he got up to in his life...you can't argue with the achievement as a songwriter.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 04:52 PM

Well since all three biographers segue to Run, Nigger, Run we don't have to guess or interpret. They can speak for themselves:

“Apparently, the “Santa Monica Examine 'Er” wasn't an isolated incident, either. On October 20, 1937, Woody received a letter from a listener that read in part: “You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your 'Nigger Blues.' I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person… of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today.” Woody was mortified. It was a word he'd used casually all his life. It was a word he'd used lightly, jokingly, without ever quite realizing its full implications. He took to the air immediately with an apology. He read the letter aloud, promised not to use the word again, and ripped all the “nigger” songs out of his book.

Woody's political naïveté did, at times, seem boundless…”
[Klein, p.95]

Note: Student Howell Terence's letter is in the archives. Klein doesn't give his source for Guthrie's response.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 04:54 PM

One evening Gutherie [sic] introduced a harmonica solo by its traditional name, “Run, Nigger, Run.” Shortly afterwards, he received a polite letter from a listener:

        I am a Negro, a young Negro in college and I certainly resented your remark. No person, or of any inteligence uses that word over the radio today…

        I don't know just how many Negroes listened to your program tonight, but I, for one, am letting you know that it was deeply resented.

Guthrie was shaken. He apologized on the air, declined to play the harmonica showpiece again – under that title – and from then on spoke of “colored men.”
All the while, Guthrie remained largely indifferent to politics….”
[Cray, p.109)]

If I am reading Cray's notes correctly the source is Maxine Crissman, interviewed by Richard Reuss, June 14-15, 1968.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: meself
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 05:25 PM

Okay, so "we don't have to guess or interpret" ... what, exactly? Phil, everything you've posted on this thread is requiring us to "guess or interpret" ... !


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 05:31 PM

“Guthrie's merciful comeuppance came at the hands of a member of his KFVD audience on October 20, 1937, after he had introduced and played Uncle Dave Macon's appalling "Run, Nigger, Run" on the air. He received from one Howell Terence a letter so politely incandescent - and he was so shaken by it - that he read it out over the airwaves the next day: "You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your "'Nigger Blues." I am Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person or persons of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today." Guthrie apologized profusely, dramatically ripped the offending song sheet to shreds before the microphine, and swore that he would never use the word again. He later made the point repeatedly apologizing to the African American community for all the racist "frothings" that he had uttered.”
[Klein, p.149-150]

Note: I think Kaufman is saying his source is Woody Guthrie, Poor Girl's Prayer, Songs of Woody Guthrie (manuscript). Haven't read that one yet.

Bound for Glory came out just a few years later in 1940 and that I have read. As outlined in Kaufman, Woody Guthrie doesn't exactly deny all of it. He simply doesn't acknowledge its existence. Here he's not a former, repressed or flaming racist. He never was a racist. And, my interpretation of Kaufman's source notwithstanding, I can't find where he ever cleaned that up.

Put another way, Woody Guthrie steadfastly maintained the pop culture/Maxine Crissman/Mudcat interpretation of events is myth and he is the one to believe. In the man's defense, it does seem there are some very real problems with the biographies, not that it validates Guthrie by a long shot but still, problems.

The author of the Santa Monica Examine 'Er was no political ignoramus nor was it a simple misunderstanding. If these are the whole of your sources none of us are sufficiently informed on the subject to parse truth from myth... at present.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 05:46 PM

Meself: Now, you don't have to guess or interpret what the biographers and Woody Guthrie have to say if you can't, or won't, read the originals (see Joe's comment above.)

All(?) the relevant bits are now posted here. You don't understand the chaos? Me neither.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: Steve Shaw
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 06:01 PM

Tedious.


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Subject: RE: Woody Guthrie: A Place of Celebration and Pain
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 27 Nov 18 - 09:09 PM

Phil keeps on quoting what other people have written, as if that was saying something himself.


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