TULSA, Okla. – This year marks the centennial of the birth of Woody Guthrie, who many have argued is perhaps one of the most influential songwriters and performers of the 20th century. Guthrie’s name is synonymous with a style of music that people through the years have called “country,” “folk,” “hillbilly” to name a few, but that is distinctly American. And though his career was as turbulent as his life and times, his music reflected the best in the man and his world. Today, the name Woody Guthrie resonates with musicians and music lovers, as well as among many of the working people whom Woody’s music championed.

While Woody Guthrie is a beloved figure in much of the world, he continues to be a source of controversy in his home state of Oklahoma because of his Communist sympathies. Few will forget the signs placed in bank windows in Okemah, Okla., Woody’s hometown, reading, “Woody is no son of ours!” – a message to those who made the pilgrimage for the annual Woody Guthrie music festival there.

But many more Oklahomans are proud to call Woody one of their own, as recently erected roadside billboards boast, “OKLAHOMA: HOME OF WOODY GUTHRIE!”

This year, in an ironic twist, the Woody Guthrie archives, currently stored in New York City, are being moved to a permanent location here in Tulsa, after what Woody’s daughter describes as “a fortuitous meeting with the folks at the George Kaiser Foundation.” While many Oklahomans are delighted that Woody’s archive will become accessible to the many Okies too poor to travel to New York, some are dismayed over the fact that the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, representing one of the wealthiest billionaires in the world, has been instrumental in moving the archive.

The proposed home for the archive is known in Tulsa as “the Brady District” – named after the notorious Tulsa politician and business mogul with well-established ties to the Ku Klux Klan. But even African Americans here see the move as an overall positive. One Tulsa resident said, “What better way to start moving our local culture away from the dominant reactionary narrative and start reasserting our progressive history. And who better to usher in that change than our own Woody Guthrie.”

Woody has been claimed as the inspiration of many now-great artists like Bruce Springsteen and The Clash’s Joe Strummer who openly admired Guthrie’s devotion to real stories about real working people. Bob Dylan was so enamored with Guthrie’s mystique that he pretended to have been born in Oklahoma. But unlike Dylan, Woody’s music was never contrived and spoke to the authentic heart of the Dust Bowl experience.

Many are aware that popular music owes a great debt to Woody’s influence, but few know much about what inspired Woody. Certainly his music was shaped by his experiences as he traveled with Oklahoma’s migrant workers attempting to escape the desolation and poverty of the 1930s. But Woody was more than just a singer and songwriter. He was a true “organic intellectual.” He not only sang about social problems, injustices, the struggle against fascism during the Second World War – he also studied these problems deeply and worked as a sort of people’s journalist.

Woody’s work was regularly featured in the Communist Party’s newspaper the Daily Worker under a column titled, “Woody Sez.” During the Depression, Woody performed for Communist Party events throughout California and, after the onset of the Second World War, was an unapologetic supporter of the united front against fascism. He felt so strongly about the need to unite against Nazi Germany and the ultra-right forces of fascism that he wrote and recorded a classic workers’ anthem titled “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.”

Woody’s sympathy for working-class movements, unions and the Communist Party is also apparent in his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land.” The song was written in 1944 as a direct response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Woody criticized as being nationalistic and against the spirit of the anti-fascist united front. As a testament to Woody’s sympathies for a Marxist critique of capitalism he included a verse in “This Land is Your Land” that is often omitted in popular renditions of this classic:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

While many have attempted to revise and reinterpret Woody’s controversial legacy since his death, Woody himself was never afraid to let his true colors shine. In addition to writing for the Communist Party’s newspaper, he openly fraternized with Communists and attended Communist Party events. Although there is some debate over whether or not Woody was ever a “card-carrying member” of the Communist Party, there is little doubt about his sympathies and support for the work of the party. As Guthrie himself once said, “The best thing that I did in 1936 was to sign up with the Communist Party.”


J. Shepherd
J. Shepherd

J. Shepherd is a labor activist in Tulsa, Okla.