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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Collection Overview

Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950, contains correspondence from Woody Guthrie written while he lived in New York. Most of the correspondence is between Guthrie and Alan Lomax, who worked in what is now the American Folklife Center. Also included are some essays and illustrations relating to Guthrie's life and activities.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Title, Subjects or Correspondence in Sequence indexes.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

U.S. History

The letters by, to, and about Woody Guthrie in the collection, Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950 provide a unique look at an important figure in the history of United States culture. Materials also pertain to the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and an early director of the Archive, Alan Lomax. Readers will also learn about folk music, the early radio and recording industries, and early-twentieth-century social history. (Transcripts of the correspondence are included in the collection).

Woody Guthrie

This collection of 53 letters by, about, and to Woody Guthrie provides the opportunity to learn about a major figure in Unites States culture, his life, and its significance. The collection's Special Presentations, Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie and Timeline of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), are a good place to start. They provide an overview of his life, while the collection's letters provide a closer look at Guthrie through his own words.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, when the state itself was just five years old. He describes his childhood in Okemah in an autobiographical essay:

"Back in the early day when folks was a crowding into Oklahoma from other states to get a piece of land and buy farms and stuff like that, they had some hard times, and some tough people, and some good times, and good people. My dad was the first clerk of the county court in the little town of Okemah, Okfusee County, right after statehood - and he was interested in real estate and a raising champion poland china hogs - but he hadn't raised the hogs as yet, on account of his politics. He was one of the old time fist fighting democrats and his fist fights kept him so busy that he raised more dust on the street corners and around in the pool halls and alleys in a fight, than anything else."

From Autobiographical Essay (page 1).

  • What kind of a place was Okemah, Oklahoma when Guthrie was growing up? How do you think his hometown might have shaped him?
  • What can you tell from his autobiographical essay about how Guthrie felt about his hometown?
  • What were Guthrie's parents like? What was his family life like growing up?
  • What kinds of jobs did Guthrie have as a youngster?
  • Why was Guthrie forced to move from Okemah when he was 15?
  • How would you characterize Guthrie's childhood?

In 1940, Guthrie moved to New York City. By this time, he had started a family, traveled extensively in the southern and western United States, written countless songs, and become a popular radio personality in California. But it was in New York City during the 40s that his career as a songwriter and folk artist really took off.

  • How did Guthrie's interest and skills in music develop?
  • What were Guthrie's songs about?
  • Why did Guthrie travel to California in 1936?
  • What did he do while in California? How did his experiences there impact him?
  • Why did Guthrie move to New York City in 1940?
  • Why did his career take off when he moved to New York City?

Most of the collection's letters were written during this important period in Guthrie's life, and can be located in the index of Correspondence in Sequence. Several, including a letter that Guthrie wrote to Lomax in July of 1940, mention the people, performances, and projects that Guthrie was involved with as he emerged as a leader in the growing folk music community:

"Pete has been to Wisconsin with the Youths. He's back now. We been singing around at the puppet workshop and other places... Going up to Camp Lakeland today and sing there tonight. Then 2 bookings here in New York tomorrow night. Then Sunday we're going out to the Staten Island with the Spanish Relief Committee. Went to a party out at Bill Groppers house last week and got drunker'n old billy hell. I sung at the bar and everybody bought me drinks... It was a howling success with everybody howling about my singing."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, ca. late July 1940 (page 1).

  • What kinds of projects was Guthrie involved in during the 1940s?
  • What business did Guthrie have with radio stations, recording companies, and the Library of Congress during this decade?
  • With whom did Guthrie perform?
  • For what kinds of audiences did Guthrie perform?
  • How did Guthrie earn money while living in New York?
  • What did Guthrie write and sing about during the 1940s?
  • What was going on in Guthrie's personal life during this period?

A series of letters and postcards written between January and April of 1941 represent a period of time that Guthrie spent on the West Coast. Frustrated with the commercialism and upper class conservatism of New York City, Guthrie took his family to California to relocate. Guthrie performed on the radio and wrote songs about the Bonneville Dam for the Department of the Interior, but returned to New York City that summer. In some of these letters, Guthrie took the opportunity to share personal insights with Lomax:

"You have seen just as great a day and time as the next feller if you only stop for a minute every once in a while to set down, I mean stand up, and think the whole thing over - everything you've lived and seen, and the times and conditions that you have seen and lived through have made you just exactly what you are and if an actor, dancer, artist, or singer, or what not, even a ditch digger, whether you're a good one or not all depends on how hard you work to fix whatever it is you're working at for the folks thats going to get the good of it."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 25, 1940 (page 1).

  • What happened to Guthrie during his trip to California?
  • Why did he return to New York City the following summer?
  • What do Guthrie's letters suggest about his values and character?

Eventually, Guthrie remarried and started a new family while he was living in New York City. In his letter to the Archive of American Folk Song on March 14, 1946, and his follow-up letter to Duncan Emrich on March 29, Guthrie included some remarks about his daughter, Cathy, who tragically died in a fire the following year. Guthrie had three more children, but by 1951 he could no longer live with his family due to a disease that was altering his behavior. Though his condition deteriorated, his influence continued to grow even beyond his death in 1967. In his letter of March 14, Guthrie wrote a playful summary of his achievements:

"I am a folk singer and composer of songs and ballads in the folk vein, writer of stories and articles along the same track, and my name is listed quite a number of times in all of your catalogs.... I have taken part in Fourteen albums of Commercial records and have Five albums out under my own name as a guitar player, harmonica blower, and a singer. I have done songs and ballads for the Department of the Interior about the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River, and the Grand Coulee Dam. And in addition to this have worked on all of the major radio nets, for all sorts of rallies of labor and the people, made up several hundred songs which are on the edge and rim of being published. I have been married twice and once to an Irish girl, once to a dancer, and have four children..."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Archive of American Folk Song, March 14, 1946 (page 1) .

  • What kind of a family life did Guthrie have? What can you tell about what kind of a father he was?
  • What do you think Guthrie hoped to accomplish in his life?
  • What do his actions and decisions throughout his life suggest about his character and values?
  • What do you think Guthrie contributed to United States culture?

Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song

Growing up in Texas in the 1870s and 80s, John Lomax was fascinated by the songs he heard around him. Cowboys sang ballads and farmers sang work songs that helped pass the time and keep the spirits up. He wrote down the lyrics to these and other songs sung by the common people of Texas, convinced that this folk music was worth documenting and studying.

Throughout the 1930s, Lomax did just that, as the Honorary Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song. Along with his wife, Ruby, and his son, Alan, he traveled the U.S., recording folk songs onto wax cylinders for the Library of Congress. A trip to the southern United States is represented in the American Memory collection, Southern Mosaic.

Apprenticed to his father, Alan Lomax became the first federally funded staff member of the Archive of American Folk Song as its "assistant in charge." In 1937, he was appointed the Director of the Archive, which he ran until 1942. It was Alan Lomax who recorded Woody Guthrie for the Archive after hearing him perform at a concert in New York City in 1940.

Many of the letters in this collection reflect the relationship between Alan Lomax and Guthrie and the activity of the Archive during the 40s and 50s. Use the index of Titles to identify letters to or from Lomax or other Archive employees.

In a letter to Guthrie dated December 13, 1941, Alan Lomax thanks Guthrie for providing a "list of informants in West Texas" that he passed along to his father and mentions a project documenting wartime opinion. On January 21, 1942, Lomax tells Guthrie that he played some of his songs for First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and asks him to contribute a song to a record of American ballads for the National Council of Teachers of English.

  • What do these letters suggest about the goals and activities of the Archive of American Song?
  • What were Guthrie's "informants in West Texas?"
  • Why might Lomax have played songs by the Almanac Singers for various people including Eleanor Roosevelt? What might this suggest about the mission of the Archive or Lomax's goals?
  • Why might the National Council of Teachers of English have wanted a record of American ballads?
  • What does the Archive's creation of this record suggest about its mission?

In a letter dated February 20, 1941, Guthrie expresses his regret that a radio show that Lomax produced, and which had featured Guthrie and other folk musicians, had been taken off the air. He wrote:

"...I'm sorry as hell to hear that Back Where I Come From is kicked off of the air. I wired to Nick asking him if I could possibly go back to work and he wired me that it was all off. Too honest again I suppose? Maybe not purty enough. Oh well, this country's a getting to where it caint hear its own voice. Someday the deal will change. I catch myself pretty often setting around thinking just how hard a dam time you must have, trying to get some of our upper crusts to listen to the real thing."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 20, 1941 (page 1).

  • What does this letter suggest about Lomax's mission and its challenges?

In a series of correspondence with his colleague, Harold Spivacke, Lomax attempted to arrange for a second recording session with Guthrie. In his memo of January 22, 1942, Spivacke questioned the usefulness of a second session and on the 26th Lomax responded:

"...the group with which Mr. Guthrie is working is continually experimenting with the development and extension of the medium of American folk-song, and the record of their experiments will have much historical significance.... no commercial company's release will provide for us the sort of material which will some day make a study of his repertory and his continual production of new songs possible."

From Memo from Alan Lomax to Harold Spivacke, January 26, 1942 (page 1).

  • According to this passage, why did Lomax think that it was important to record Guthrie's songs?
  • Why did Lomax think that it was important that the Library of Congress record Guthrie's songs even if commercial companies were also recording his material?

Later that year, on June 7th, Guthrie offered to give the Library the manuscripts of 200 of his songs. Lomax officially accepted the donation on August 7th promising, "some day, when you are about ninety, we will put them in a big glass case upstairs, beside the Constitution..." In 1946, Guthrie offered to come to the Library for another recording session, but on October 2, 1950, Duncan Emrich notified Guthrie that the Library lacked the necessary funds.

  • What is the tone of correspondence between Lomax and Guthrie?
  • What can you determine about their relationship from these letters?
  • What can you determine about Alan Lomax's character?
  • What did Lomax and the Archive ultimately do for Guthrie? How did they impact his life?
  • What did Guthrie do for Lomax and the Archive?

Guthrie's contributions to American Folk Music

With this collection of correspondence pertaining to Woody Guthrie, readers can learn about folk music from a man that many consider the ultimate folk artist. Several letters in the collection provide insight into Guthrie's concepts about folk music and into the development of a folk music movement in the 1940s. For example, in a letter he wrote to Alan Lomax on September 19, 1940, Guthrie discusses the origin of folk music in the everyday lives of common people:

"You know pretty near it everybody is a making up all kinds of tunes all along but they just dont know about it. You see a lady doing your housework and youll be a walking around a humming or whistling and half of the time youll mix up about three or four songs that are such a good mixture that you get a brand new song - but the reason you don't know it is because your mind is thinking about all kinds of stuff like dishes and dust pans and kids and husbands and ice men and the traveling salesman or debts you would like to be able to pay if you could only raise the money - and so the tune fades away and that's the last of it. Everybody makes up music and some folks try to harness it and put it to work... Music is some kind of electricity that makes a radio out of a man and his dial is his head and he just sings according to how hes a feeling."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 3 and 4) .

  • According to Guthrie, where do the tunes for folk songs come from?
  • According to Guthrie, why aren't more people aware of the music that they make?
  • How would you characterize the process of creating a folk song, according to this description?
  • Do you think that Guthrie is right that "everybody makes up music?"

Later, in the same letter, Guthrie discusses the content and meaning of folk songs:

"I think real folk stuff scares most of the boys around Washington. A folk song is whats wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is 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."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 7 and 8).

  • What does this passage suggest about why people make up folk songs?
  • What does it suggest about the purpose of a folk song?
  • What were some of the topics that Guthrie sang about? What were the messages of his songs?

Guthrie's belief that folk music should have a social or political significance was expressed in his choice of audiences as well as the songs he wrote. In his letter of February 20, 1941, Guthrie wrote Lomax about how much he enjoyed performing for the CIO union movement in New York City. In his next letter, written from California in April, he tells Lomax that he's "been singing around at some few Peace Rallies, Womens Teas, Union Meetings and so forth."

As the U.S. entered World War II, Guthrie and the group he performed with, called the Almanac Singers, wrote and performed war songs. Guthrie hoped that a recording company would produce a record of these songs and wrote to two companies, Victor and Columbia, arguing:

In these days of a war to the death against fascism, when our whole nation is buckling down to the job of working and fighting the greatest war that ever come over the face of the whole world, I feel of the notion that war songs are work songs and hit a lot harder than empty slogans...

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Victor, ca. June 17, 1942 (page 1).

Guthrie also supported the war by joining the Merchant Marine. When one of the ships he worked on, the Sea Porpoise, was fired at by German submarines, he performed for the three thousand anxious troops who were confined below deck as depth charges sounded around them.

  • According to his letters to Victor and Columbia, why did Guthrie think that war songs were important?
  • In a letter written on March 29, 1946, we learn that Guthrie wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. What do you think he meant by this?
  • Why do you think that Guthrie performed for the troops on board the Sea Porpoise?
  • What do you think Guthrie saw as the purpose of folk music?

The Almanac Singers' repertoire of war songs made them a sudden success. (The index of Subjects provides three letters pertaining to this group). But about eight years later in 1950, another folk group called the Weavers became even more popular with a repertoire of international folk songs. The Weavers included two of the Almanac Singers' original members, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. Guthrie, however, seemed to feel that they abandoned their political beliefs by performing for wealthy audiences at high-profile venues.

  • Does folk music have to be political to be authentic?
  • Does folk music have to be written about issues that impact common people?
  • Can folk music be written by or performed for people of the upper class and still be considered folk music?

Early Radio and Recording Industries

Radio signals were first transmitted by an Italian man named Guglielmo Marconi in 1895, but it wasn't until the 1920s that commercial broadcasting emerged. Similarly, Thomas Edison made the first recording of a human voice in 1877, but it wasn't until the early twentieth century that the technology had advanced enough to make commercial recordings possible. Letters in this collection, dating primarily from the 1940s, reflect the radio and recording industries when they were still relatively new.

Several letters discuss radio programs in which both Guthrie and Alan Lomax were involved. School of the Air, for example, was a program on CBS for which Lomax produced a series called American Folk Songs and Wellsprings of Music. As host, Lomax sang and discussed folk music and presented other performers, including Guthrie. Lomax went on to produce a nightly program for CBS called Back Where I Come From, which featured folk tales, proverbs, prose, and sermons, as well as songs.

Search on radio, School of the Air, and Back Where I Come From for relevant materials such as Lomax's February 4, 1941 letter to Guthrie and Guthrie's composition called The Railroad Cricket, which is thought to have been written for a broadcast of Back Where I Come From.

  • What was Guthrie's role on Back Where I Come From?
  • What can you tell from these letters about what Back Where I Come From was like?
  • What impression do these materials give you about what radio might have been like in general in the early 1940s? How was it different from radio today?
  • How did these programs about folk music impact the recording of commercial folk music?

On February 15, 1941, Guthrie wrote to Lomax from California about why he left New York City and his plans to work on a radio program in Los Angeles. At the same time, he shared some criticisms of the radio industry:

"Give our regards to the cast in New York. Hope they are all in good circumstances with a sponsor that likes them good as we do and one that believes in freedom of speaking.... I couldn't see to save my neck any immediate prospect of a commercial there. The fifteen minutes was a little packed. The elevator run too straight up and straight down and the studio had too many radioactivities in it, and so I ducked off down across the southern states to get a first hand look at what's going on, and lit here in L.A.... With every invention of modern times turned against them, the people sing their song just the same as they ever did. Everywhere you go they tell you they don't believe what you hear on your radio.... as far as soaking up all of this war scare and bloody talk and hooray stuff —, they've had hard luck enough to wake them up and put them away above that stuff - that comes from great big overgrown rich folks. They control everything that's said and done on every single radio.... We'll have some real honest to goodness singing and playing on the air waves some of these days, when the real peoples songs and programs can be broadcasted instead of what we have got now."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 15, 1941 (pages 1 and 2).

  • What problems did Guthrie have with the radio and recording industries?
  • What were his opinions of radio sponsorship?
  • According to this letter, why did Guthrie leave the radio program in New York City?
  • Why do you think that Guthrie felt that the radio was "turned against" the people?
  • According to his letter written in the fall of 1940, how did Guthrie like the experience of performing for a radio broadcast at CBS?
  • What do you think Guthrie hoped to accomplish through radio programs?
  • What do you think Lomax hoped to accomplish through radio programs?

Broadcasting companies such as CBS and BBC were also the companies that produced sound recordings. For example, CBS, or the Columbia Broadcasting System, started out as the Columbia Phonograph Co., which produced its own commercial recordings in addition to selling phonographs and cylinders. Search on recording for 17 letters including a full recording contract between Guthrie and the RCA Manufacturing Company. Readers will also find letters that Guthrie wrote to two companies, Victor and Columbia, pitching the idea of a record of war and work songs.

  • What did RCA get out of its contract with Guthrie?
  • What did Guthrie get out of this contract?
  • What were some of the restrictions that Guthrie accepted as part of this contract?
  • Do you think that this contract made a fair exchange between RCA and Guthrie?
  • How are recording contracts different today?
  • Do artists still pitch ideas to recording companies the way Guthrie did in 1942?
  • What do Guthrie's letters to Victor and Columbia suggest about what he saw as the potential of the radio and recording industries?

Other letters reveal that the Federal Government was also an important record producer. In a memo to another Library of Congress employee, Lomax requests that blank records and cutting needles be sent to Guthrie so that he could record his own songs. In another letter, Lomax requests Guthrie's permission to use a recording of his song "Gypsy Davy" on a new album of American ballads that the Library was producing:

"Our fee to singers for permission to use their material is a flat $10.00 per side, which is hereby offered to you with apologies understood. I sincerely believe that this will not compete with your commercial records, even if you decide to record the same song for commercial companies, and I hope you will feel able to tell us to go ahead. If not, I will understand perfectly the reasons why you decided not to."

From Letter from Alan Lomax to Woody Guthrie, January 21, 1942 (page 1).

  • How were sound recordings made in the early 1940s? What kinds of materials and technology were used?
  • What did Lomax mean when he wrote Guthrie that he was making his offer with "apologies understood?"
  • Why does Lomax think that Guthrie might not allow the Library to use "Gypsy Davy" on their new record?
  • What other government agency is mentioned in these letters as having recorded Guthrie's songs? How were these recordings used?
  • Why might the government have been one of the earliest producers of sound recordings?
  • What might this suggest about early concepts of the value of sound recordings?

Early-Twentieth-Century Social History

Guthrie took the time in many of his letters to describe aspects of everyday life in the various places where he lived and traveled. These detailed accounts bring the social history of the early twentieth century to life.

In his autobiographical essay and a letter called Vote for Bloat, Guthrie describes the "wild country" in which he grew up, during the 1910s and 20s in Oklahoma and Texas. He describes the crime, fighting, drinking, and gambling of a frontier town that only intensified when the discovery of oil turned it into a boom town. However, he also describes a sunnier side of life:

"I guess you wonder how the devil folks could be happier out in a wild and wooly place like Oklahoma was right after it got to being a state. Well folks sometimes are a lot better satisfied a building up somethin, than they are after they get it built up. I dont know why that is.... I remember how they use to celebrate. I use to go around to all of the old time square dances, picnics, an pie suppers, and play parties, and out of door picnics, and fairs and carnivals — where the girls would come a steppin out in a brand new cotton dress, and the boys would be dressed up like a million dollars in a 4 bit pair of overhalls and a good store bought work shirt — and shoes or no shoes, they would all get together and sing and dance and holler and yell and run and jump and raise old billy hall — and really get a kick out of bein alive."

From Autobiographical Essay (page 2).

  • Why do you think that there was so much crime, violence, and corruption in Oklahoma during the 1910s and 20s?
  • What is a boom town? Why is there so much gambling, drinking, violence, and prostitution in a boom town?
  • What did people do for enjoyment in Oklahoma during the 1910s and 20s? How have leisure and social activities changed over time?
  • Do you think that Guthrie enjoyed growing up in this culture? Why or why not?

In his autobiography, Guthrie also describes hopping a freight train to Oklahoma, probably during the 1930s, and being shocked by how much his home state had changed:

"We was a passing by a a house. It was a farm house. It had been a fairly decent one is its day and time, but it was vacant now. And the big slim weeds had growed up all over the yard. Windows all broke out. Porch was rotted out and a fallin sideways to the ground, like a calf that hat been hit with a sledge. The roof was a shingle roof. The old shingled was a sticking all slaunchways and some shingles up and some shingles down — and the whole cussed roof was swayed in wores than a swayback mare about to give birth to twin colts. Paint all gone....We hadn't rattled but about a quarter till I looked out and seen the same thing... I never had thought of Oklahoma as a state of deserted farms and shell shocked houses, and limber windmills, and rusty plows — but there it was mile after mile, nothing but hills and hollers that hid all except the roof of another such a layout."

From Autobiographical Essay (pages 4 and 5).

  • Why were all of the houses that Guthrie saw deserted? Where had all of the former residents gone and why?
  • Why do you think Guthrie was riding in a freight car?

Other letters reflect the 1930s as well. In his letter to Lomax written on September 19, 1940, he mentions the migration of families from the Dust Bowl to California during the previous decade. Guthrie's description of hitchhiking outside of Reno, Nevada was probably recollected from a trip made during the 1930s. And in his November, 1940 letter to Lomax Guthrie commented, "Did I tell you about the pool they took to find out who was the most popular man in the world and Jesus Christ was first and Will Rogers second?"

  • Why did so many families from the Dust Bowl go to California?
  • What did Guthrie mean when he wrote that in California, "the police and big farmers got the whole works?"
  • Who was Will Rogers? Why do you think that he was so popular during the 1930s?

Most of the collection's letters were written in the 1940s and reflect the history and culture of that decade. Browse letters for references to the WPA, the Department of the Interior, World War II, and Communism as well as descriptions that convey a sense of time and place. In a letter written on September 19, 1940 Guthrie describes life in New York City, while his letter of January 22, 1941 compares life in New York City to life in California. Guthrie wrote this letter during a trip to California. He describes playing some songs in a saloon in exchange for a steak dinner and being pulled over by the police on his drive out there:

"The cops see me with no shave and this purty car and they stop me about every four miles and look over all of the papers and stuff and they say they still dont believe it but it rattles their brain and they boost me over into the next county and another bunch takes in after me and lots of times I got so many standin around a reading them papers that I wish I was a selling bade polish or belt oil or 45 grease of some cheap grade I could pick up a few nickels. I got two carbon copies of all of the papers and have dam near it wore out the car windows rolling them up and down to hand out papers."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, January 22, 1941 (page 2).

  • Why did the Department of the Interior hire Guthrie to write songs about the Bonneville Dam?
  • Why did some people call Guthrie a Communist and why were they upset by his songs?
  • What was the importance of radio during the 1940s?
  • How does Guthrie portray politics during this decade?
  • Why did the police keep pulling Guthrie over during his drive to California?
  • What do Guthrie's anecdotes about being pulled over by the police and playing songs for a steak dinner suggest about culture during the 1940s?
  • What might account for differences between the culture of New York City and the culture of California in the 1940s?
  • To what extent was there a national culture at that time?

Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Interpreting Timelines

The collection has three resources that can be used to practice chronological thinking: an index of Correspondence in Sequence, an essay called Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie and a timeline called Timeline of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). All three resources provide a ready way to consider the chronology of Guthrie's life and letters.

Readers can gain further insight into Guthrie's life and letters by creating their own timelines tracing the history of pertinent topics. Use a history text book to trace the major historical events that occurred during Guthrie's life. Or research the music industry or labor movement and trace the developments that occurred in these fields in Guthrie's lifetime.

  • What does your timeline add to your appreciation of Guthrie's life and letters?

Historical Comprehension

"Back in the early day," Guthrie wrote in his autobiographical essay "when folks was a crowding into Oklahoma from other states to get a piece of land and buy farms and stuff like that, they had some hard times, and some tough people..." Guthrie saw more tough people surviving hard times when he went to California in 1936. Many families had come from the Dust Bowl to find work in California. There were so many of them, however, that competition was incredible and bosses got away with paying them very low wages. Many families found no work at all.

Guthrie saw these families living out of their cars and camped in makeshift shelters. He was outraged by the injustice and found kindred spirits in members of the American Communist Party who urged these migrants to organize and form unions to defend themselves. Though Guthrie never joined the Party, he embraced its ideals and mission to reform the country's political, economic, and social systems to ensure more equality and better conditions for the working class.

Several letters reflect Guthrie's Communist ideals in his sensitivity to the condition of the working class and to problems of corruption. For example, in his letter of February 15, 1941 Guthrie writes, "folks are just plain folks everywhere you go, all has been hit hard, went through several political cyclones, been sold out so often that they feel like they've got pimps." In another letter, called Vote for Bloat, he remarks on problems with elections in the United States:

"The average elections are about as useful as a slop jar without a bottom in it.... Down in Baltimore Md., they wont let you buy no liquor on election day and so they sell more than ever on that day. They say they want you to vote sober. What difference does it make, you couldnt vote no wronger. Sometimes I think they ought to try it the other way. If the people was to ever win an election, they'd think they was dead and in heaven, I mean in heaven without a having to die.... Some states charge you $1.75 to vote they call it poll tax, that takes a weeks groceries and snuff and most folks figure that the democrats aint worth 1.75 and the republicans aint worth that much."

From Vote for Bloat (page 4).

The outbreak of World War II presented a crisis for the American Communist Party. The Soviet Union, which was governed by Communists, signed a nonaggression pact with Germany that caused some of the American Communist Party members to disavow the Russian Communists. Other people including Guthrie, however, defended the group. When it came to talk of the U.S. entering the war, Guthrie was opposed. On February 15, 1941, he wrote about the "war scare" in the media:

"...just like on any other subject, folks has got something to say about it; they might not let on around high society ginks, but the people has got just a plenty to say about every little thing that's said and done that's a leading us down this lonesome road to the war."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 15, 1941 (page 2).

  • Why might Guthrie and some American Communists have opposed U.S. involvement in World War II?

Once the U.S. entered the war, however, Guthrie enthusiastically supported a victory against Fascism, writing in a letter to Lomax on June 7, 1942, "How's the war spirit out there in Washington? High, I hope. I hope everybody's back of me and Harry Bridges and Joe Curran and Franklin D., in this fight to plow Hitler under." Do a full-text search on war for more materials.

  • Was Guthrie's support of the war effort once the U.S. entered the conflict in line with his Communist ideals? Why or why not?
  • What do Guthrie's letters to Victor and Columbia suggest about why he supported the war?

When the Soviet Union invaded Poland, more and more Americans came to despise Communism. Guthrie's defense of the Russian Communists early in the war had cost him a radio job in California and his Communist ideals brought him some unwanted publicity a year later in New York:

" & Cisco sung one week up here on 44 Street in a joint called JImmy Dwyers Sawdust Trail.... The big reporters from the newspapers come down and they listened to the songs about the people in the dust bowl and about the ones that are chasing up and down that big 66 highway with empty bowls and the ones that went to California trying to swap a crocked crock bowl for a sugar bowl and the police and big farmers got the whole works — and the papers here, the Sun and others give a pretty good write up or two about the dust bowl and especially P.M. & the Sun Sept 5th 1940 copy — and lots of people wrote in hollering that the reporter fell for a lot of fifth colum stuff. They called me a comm-unist and a wild man and everything you could think of but I dont care what they call me. I ain't a member of any earthly organization my trouble is I really ought to go down in the morning and just join everything.... I've always knowed this was what I wanted to talk and sing about and I'm used to running into folks that complain but I dont ever intend to sell out or quit or talk or sing any different because when I do that drug store lemonade stuff I just open up my mouth and nothing comes out."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 5 and 6).

  • Why did the people who wrote into the newspaper call Guthrie a Communist?
  • What does this letter suggest about why Guthrie might not have joined the American Communisty Party?
  • What can you tell from this letter about why Guthrie believed in Communist ideals?

Though the war ended, American distrust of Communism only grew. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee began its investigation into the Hollywood and performance industry, trying to identify members of the American Communist Party. Some of Guthrie's friends were members of the Party. Fellow Almanac Singer, Pete Seeger, was monitored by the FBI for years. In 1961, he was sentenced to ten years in jail for refusing to provide the Committee with names of other Party members. A year later, however, the Court of Appeals dismissed the conviction.

  • Why might you expect folk musicians and folklorists to be sympathetic to Communist ideals?
  • How important do you think Guthrie's Communist ideals were to him? To what extent did they define who he was, how he lived, and what he achieved?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

This collection includes a short composition called The Railroad Cricket that Guthrie probably wrote for an episode of the radio program Back Where I Come From. This composition is an allegory, a story that seems to be about one thing, but actually has another, symbolic, meaning as well. Read The Railroad Cricket a few times and answer the following questions to interpret the symbolic meaning of Guthrie's tale.

  • What does the railroad cricket do for the railroad workers?
  • What does Guthrie mean when he writes, "The rainy weather he'd hide up under a chunk somewheres and you talk about it, he'd mentally put it out?"
  • Why wasn't the railroad cricket afraid of his boss?
  • What did the railroad cricket do in the winter and why?
  • What did the railroad cricket do for the other crickets and how did they respond?
  • Given what the railroad cricket is like and what it does, who or what else might the cricket represent?
  • Who might the crickets that hid in big holes represent?
  • What do you think is the symbolic meaning of this story?
  • Why might Guthrie have chosen to use an allegorical story about a cricket to convey this meaning?

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making

In an essay Guthrie shared with Lomax in November, 1940 he wrote:

"I got a boy that'll be eight year old in just seven more years... You know I aint seen him in a long time. In fact I aint been around that guy much since he's been my boy. I have to set and study right real hard to think of a being a dad. But you know how it was — I had to leave — couldn't take them with me down the road — so then I couldn't make a living for them there in the dust country, so I just lit out, and am still lit out — but thank heaven I've learned a little bit, so the time wasn't plumb wasted."

From Essay from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, ca. November 1940 (page 1).

Guthrie was living in New York City at this time. He was looking for work while his wife, Mary, and their three children were living with her parents in Texas. Soon, Guthrie established himself as an important folk musician. He was making more money than he ever had before and sent for his family to join him. But soon, Guthrie suddenly decided to leave New York City. He bought a car and drove his family to California. He sent Lomax postcards and letters from the road:

"We're all right for the shape we're in. The wife feels better out here but she likes New York City paychecks better than what I been able to carve out of the mountains so far. She just wasn't in New York long enough to get right good and sick of it.... Tell the Gates and Burl and Earl and Pete and Dave and everybody I said howdy. Sure a fine bunch of fellers. If I was twins so that I could be up there and on the road at the same time but the way it is it looks like it's got to be the road."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, January 22, 1941 (page 2).

Throughout his life, Guthrie seemed to put his singing, urge to ramble, and political beliefs before his family. When he was living with his family in Texas, he would take off for days, weeks, or months at a time. When he was living in Los Angeles, he left home just days before his son, Will Rogers Guthrie, was born, to perform for a group of cotton pickers in Arvin, California.

Guthrie's family had come to Los Angeles in 1937, when he got a job singing on a radio program. But when he and his singing partner ran out of steam a year later, they canceled the program and Guthrie hopped a train leaving his family behind. After a few weeks on the road, he returned to the radio station and persuaded the owner to give him his own radio program. But when Guthrie refused to tone down his Communist opinions, the show was cancelled and he moved his family back to Texas.

His biographers have written that Guthrie wasn't directed by a sense of responsibility the way most people are. Nor did he have a typical appreciation of money. Even when he was living on the road without a job, he would often give what money he had to needy strangers. Eventually, he and Mary divorced. Guthrie's life with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, and their children was complicated by a debilitating disease.

  • To what extent do you think that Guthrie's instinct for rambling contributed to his character, sense of purpose, and accomplishments?
  • To what extent do you think that Guthrie's indifference to money contributed to his character and accomplishments?
  • Do you think the fact that Guthrie's behavior and decisions caused his family hardships detracts from what he accomplished?
  • Do you think that Guthrie could have accomplished what he did while also being a more responsible husband and father?
  • To what or whom do you think Guthrie did feel responsible?
  • Do you think that Guthrie should have been more responsible towards his family even if meant that he wouldn't have been a writer and performer?
  • Do you think it's possible for a great artist to also have a traditional family life or are the responsibilities of family and the requirements of a creative life at odds with each other? Explain.

Historical Research Capabilities

A biographical research project that uses the collection's letters can enhance an understanding of both Guthrie's life and his letters. Biographies on Guthrie, such as This Land Was Made for You and Me by Elizabeth Partridge and Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein provide overviews of Guthrie's life, but the letters contain details such as addresses, dates, and references to people, places, and events that can be used to flesh out a more detailed account of Guthrie's life during the 40s and 50s.

Use these details to formulate research questions. For example, the address at the top of Guthrie's letter to Lomax written in August, 1940, could suggest the following questions:

  • When did Guthrie move to this "new address" and why? What was his previous address?
  • Who is Will Geer? Why was Guthrie receiving mail in care of Geer? Was he living with him? If so, how long did he live with him?
  • What were the Tobacco Road Stage and Forrest Theater? What, if anything, did Guthrie have to do with them?

Guthrie's postcard of September 8, 1941 could suggest these questions:

  • What was Guthrie doing in Portland?
  • Who was he with?
  • How long was he there?

Use the biographies and letters to create and answer such questions and create a detailed account of some period of Guthrie's life in the 40s and 50s.

  • What does placing these letters within a biographical context add to your appreciation of them? Provide an example of how you understood a particular letter better because of having biographical information.
  • What does being able to read his letters add to your appreciation of Guthrie and your understanding of his life?

Arts & Humanities

Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950 is comprised mostly of letters by Guthrie who, in addition to songs also wrote newspaper columns, an autobiographical novel, a memoir, and countless pages of unpublished writing. Guthrie's writings and insights into writing available in this collection provide the opportunity to learn about songwriting, humor, simile and metaphor, storytelling, and the documentary form.


One of the highlights of the collection is a letter in which Guthrie writes extensively about the art of songwriting. Search on songwriting for this letter, read it, and identify Guthrie's main points about how to write a good song.

  • How important is the meaning of a song to Guthrie?
  • How important are the feelings that a song provokes?
  • How does Guthrie think that a songwriter can best covey meaning and provoke certain feelings?
  • According to Guthrie, what role does the audience play in making a song effective?
  • What should the songwriter do to help the audience play this role?
  • What was Guthrie's secret to being able to write so many songs?

Listen to some of Guthrie's songs, select one, and write a brief explanation of how the song does or does not reflect his ideas about songwriting expressed in his letter. Choose one of your favorite songs by another artist and consider to what extent it conforms with Guthrie's ideas about good songwriting. What other ideas about songwriting might this song reflect? Use Guthrie's advice to write your own song.


In his letter about songwriting, Guthrie also provides insight into the art of humor. Read the letter and identify the main points that Guthrie makes about how to create humor in writing or storytelling.

"You hadn't ought to try to be too funny because if you just tell folks the truth they'll laugh at every other word. The best of all funny songs have got a mighty sincere backbone. There are the old deathbed and graveyard and parted lover songs that I sing more than any others when I need to cheer myself up, and there is something very funny about almost everything that happens if you do a good job of a telling just exactly what took place like in the song why do you Stand There in The Rain? Or about Pretty Boy Floyd or the little Boll Weevil. People that laugh at songs laugh because it made them think of something and they want you to leave a good bit up to their guesswork and imagination and it takes on a friendly and warm atmosphere like you was thanking them for being good listeners and giving them credit for being able to guess the biggest part of the meaning. Lots of songs I make up when Im laughing and celebrating make folks cry and songs I make up when Im feeling down and out makes people laugh. These two upside down feelings has got to be in any song to make it take a hold and last."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (page 2).

Browse Guthrie's writings for examples of humor such as his letter to the Archive of American Folk Song or his recollections of election day in Oklahoma in his letter called Vote for Bloat:

"You talk about elections man I seen years go by down there in Oklahoma and you talk about fights I seen years go by down there in Okfuskee County when none of us knew for six or eight months just who was elected sheriff or judge because nobody was well enough to count the votes. Some years they wasn't enough votes to count. Other years they counted them three times and all of these things caused fist and gang fights. We tried not to hurt the women. Everybody liked kids down there but a few days before election and several days after we didnt, well us kids just naturally had to keep off of the streets because of the fist fights and gang fights and teams running away with wagons and turning over chicken coops and running through everything and women out chasing from one end of town to the other getting their men folks up off of the streets or out from under some building. It was wild down in there along them rivers and we had plenty of skunk and bob cat and panther but you was a devil of a lot safer out along the river bottoms than you was in town of a election week."

From Vote for Bloat (page 3).

Identify passages that illustrate the points Guthrie made about how to create humor. What other techniques does he use to create humor that he didn't outline in his letter on songwriting? Practice reading one of these letters out loud to create the most humorous effect.

Simile and Metaphor

One characteristic of Guthrie's writing is his use of simile and metaphor. Similes and metaphors are comparisons that writers make in order to describe something. With a simile, the writer uses words such as like and as to create the comparison. With a metaphor, the writer creates the comparison by simply equating the subject with something else. In his letter of February 20, 1941, Guthrie uses a simile to describe the rain:

"It's still raining here. Fact it has been for 40 days and 40 nights, just enough to make me want to build a arc. Like Noah. Raining harder now. Started up like a truck loaded with potatoes rumbling over a bridge."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 20, 1941 (page 1).

  • With what does Guthrie compare the rain at the end of this quotation?
  • What do you learn about the rain through this comparison?

In his autobiographical essay, Guthrie uses similes to describe a broken down farm house:

"We was a passing by a a house. It was a farm house. It had been a fairly decent one is its day and time, but it was vacant now. And the big slim weeds had growed up all over the yard. Windows all broke out. Porch was rotted out and a fallin sideways to the ground, like a calf that hat been hit with a sledge. The roof was a shingle roof. The old shingled was a sticking all slaunchways and some shingles up and some shingles down — and the whole cussed roof was swayed in worse than a swayback mare about to give birth to twin colts."

From Autobiographical Essay (page 4).

  • Identify the similes in this paragraph.
  • Identify the subjects of the similes and the objects to which they are being compared.
  • What is Guthrie saying about the subjects through these similes?

Identify the simile and metaphor in the following passage:

"You know pretty near it everybody is a making up all kinds of tunes all along but they just don't know about it.... Everybody makes up music and some folks try to harness it and put it to work just like steam that you caint hold in your hand... Music is some kind of electricity that makes a radio out of a man and his dial is in his head and he just sings according to how hes a feeling."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (pages 3 and 4).

  • What does Guthrie suggest through the simile and metaphor in this passage?
  • Why might a writer decide to use similes and metaphors? What do they add to a piece of writing?


Guthrie's use of dialect, humor, and rhythm make some of his prose especially suited to storytelling. Select one of Guthrie's compositions, such as his autobiographical essay, Vote for Bloat, or The Railroad Cricket, which was written for the radio, and read it aloud to an audience. Use the following questions to analyze the composition and prepare your reading of it.

  • What kind of a persona does Guthrie create in this piece and how? What is your reaction to this persona?
  • In a letter about songwriting, Guthrie says that any good song must create sadness and laughter "to make it take a hold and last." How does Guthrie create sadness and laughter in the writing you've selected? How can you bring this sadness and laughter across through your storytelling?
  • What is the rhythm of the piece? How does Guthrie create this rhythm? What does the rhythm add to the impact of the piece?
  • What message or ideas do you think Guthrie was trying to communicate in this piece? What techniques does he use to communicate these things most effectively?
  • What are the similarities between Guthrie's prose writing and his songwriting?
  • What do the Library of Congress's recordings of Guthrie reveal about the relationship between Guthrie's songs and stories?


In several of his letters, Guthrie takes the time to document some of the things he's seen in his life. In his autobiographical essay he describes his home town, from its street fights to its square dances. In a letter from January 22, 1941 he describes a mining town in California and his drive out there from New York. He describes New York City in a letter called Vote for Bloat, and in a letter from Los Angeles, Guthrie gives his take on public opinion at the time.

In a letter from September 19, 1940, Guthrie records the story of a childhood dog that was poisoned by a neighbor. He closes the same letter with the following statement:

"All I know how to do alan is to just keep a plowing right on down the avenue watching what I can see and listening to what I can hear and trying to learn about everybody I meet every day and try to make one part of the country feel like they know the other part and one end of it help the other end..."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940 (page 8).

  • How conscious do you think Guthrie was of the fact that he was documenting everyday life?
  • What do you think he saw as the purpose of this activity?

From 1935 to 1947, the federal government's Department of Agriculture hired photographers to make an unprecedented documentation of rural America through its Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations (RA and FSA).

Over 160,000 of these photographs are available in the American Memory collection, America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945.

During this same era, Guthrie was also documenting rural America, as well as working America, and city life in his songs and prose.

Listen to some of Guthrie's songs and view some of the FSA-OWI photographs and answer the following questions:

  • What are the similarities and differences between the photographs and Guthrie's songs and prose?
  • To what extent do they document the same subject matter?
  • To what extent do they indicate similar view points or opinions?
  • What do Guthrie's letters indicate about why he thought it was important to document the things he saw and heard?
  • Why do you think that the FSA and its photographers thought that it was important to document rural America and the mobilization effort for WWII?
  • Why might people have been particularly motivated to document this era?
  • What role did Guthrie's penchant for documentation play in his accomplishments?