American Radical

by Will Kaufman


In Pampa, Texas, Guthrie lived through the catastrophe that would enable him to identify with many of the migrants he would later meet in the California camps—the historical event with which he himself would become most readily identified. As he told his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, after she’d asked why he began writing songs about the Dust Bowl: “Well, I always sort of liked to write about wherever I happen to be. I just happened to be in the Dust Bowl. I mean, it wasn’t something that I particularly wanted or craved, but since I was there and the dust was there, I thought, well, I’ll write a little song about it. . . . I felt it was the most important thing that I had seen, so I had to write about it.”

In the Dust Bowl, five thousand square miles of ravaged farmland wreaked its vengeance on the inhabitants of the southern plains—vengeance for the decades of intensive cotton and wheat farming that had wiped out the indigenous prairie grasses holding down the soil for the previous millennia; vengeance for the army of Henry Ford’s tractors let loose upon on the land; vengeance for the arrogant belief that no vengeance would ever come. In November of 1933, the dust buried the Midwest. The following spring it came back to bury Chicago as well as Albany and Buffalo, New York. Three hundred miles out in the Atlantic, sailors reported the settling of a fine patina of red Oklahoma dust on their decks and railings. Guthrie later described the worst dust storm that he, or any of the Dust Bowlers, witnessed, on Black Sunday—Palm Sunday—April 14, 1935. The sky had turned black and red with thousands of tons of roiling dust, as winds of more than seventy miles an hour whipped the topsoil and red clay from as far away as Nebraska and dumped it on the already dying town of Pampa. Animals and people choked to death. Toddlers wandered off into dust drifts and suffocated. The plains around Pampa, Guthrie said, were “thirty-six hundred feet high and just as flat as a floor. A thousand miles wide and ain’t a thing in the world to stop that wind but just a barb-wire fence, about a hundred miles north of there, and it ain’t got a barb on it.” When the dust storm hit the huddled town of Pampa, it “looked like a ocean was chompin’ on a snail.” It looked “like the Red Sea closin’ in on the Israel children.”

Out of this experience came Guthrie’s first Dust Bowl ballad, “Dusty Old Dust” (“So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”), which, even at that early stage in his songwriting career, carried a critical bite as it swiped at the greed of small-town prairie prelates feeding on the trembling and the credulous. Terrorized by promises of hellfire and damnation, the parishioners flock to the church:

And that dusty old dust storm blowed so black,The preacher could not read a word of his text And he folded his specs and he took up a collection. Said, “So long, it’s been good to know yuh …”

When Guthrie left his wife and children to seek a living for them all out west, he carried a part of Oklahoma with him: the prairie socialist tradition that his father had fought so hard to beat down, and which he himself would work to perpetuate. The radical struggle was inscribed into his very birthdate—July 14, 1912. While much has been made of the revolutionary overtones of the day—Bastille Day—it was the year of his birth that was the most significant. The year 1912 marked the near-zenith of the rising and falling tide of Oklahoma socialism, with the militant farmers giving Eugene Debs and his Socialist Party over 16 percent of the state’s vote in the national election (whereas the party could claim only 6 percent nationally). Socialism—the “tempting serpent” with “dangerous fangs,” as Charley Guthrie described it—had thrown the state’s Democrats “into panic,” with the Socialists having increased their vote in every cotton- belt ballot since 1907. Debs had inflamed rural radicalism with his visions of a “cooperative commonwealth” and the damnation of capitalism as “inherently unjust, inhuman, unintelligent.” In Oklahoma the Socialist Party had championed the interests of “agricultural workers” above all others, declaring them in official platforms the backbone of the state’s “working class”; the Party’s “Renter’s and Farmer’s Program” promised to place control of the land in “the hands of the actual tillers of the soil.” The Debsianparty was populist in its appeal, the people’s St. George taking on the political dragon of “rent, credit, and taxes”—upon which the fortunes of all property entrepreneurs, Charley Guthrie included, were founded. The elder Guthrie could take little pleasure in the knowledge that it was his state—not New York—that was the epicenter of political radicalism in America.

There were historical reasons for these whirlwinds of prairie radicalism. In the decades after the Civil War, the autonomous Five Nations inhabiting Oklahoma Territory—the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee—had leased vast swaths of their lands to railroad speculators, mine owners, ranchers, and other white, moneyed entrepreneurs. Masses of poor whites had also flooded the “Indian Territory,” leasing small holdings from both white and tribal landlords in a bid to escape the hard- scrabble farmlands of the defeated Confederacy. But then the Five Nations themselves had succumbed to the clamor of eastern developers claiming that they were too “lazy” and “idle” for the continued stewardship of the land; their governmental and social structures were dissolved and their lands “allotted” to more aggressive or “enterprising” stewards. By the time of Oklahoma statehood in 1907, a whole cadre of merchants, lawyers, bankers, and landlords had grown to preside over the poor whites—both established settlers and newcomers—who watched helplessly as land values inflated along with agricultural prices. Oil discoveries, railroad building, and other capitalist developments snowballed. By Bastille Day 1912, the majority of Oklahoma’s farmers were tenants, many of them paying a bitter rent on farms that they had once owned.

But also by Bastille Day of 1912, the state’s renters had begun to fight back. Some had organized into unions modeled on those of the southwestern coal miners and timber workers, such as the Oklahoma Renters’ Union, founded in 1909. Rural militants took heed of radical newspapers like the Sulpher New Century, which proclaimed that “every tenant farmer in Murray county should take steps to organize. . . There are less than one hundred landlords in the county and about seven hundred tenants; organization is the only remedy. Just so long as you act independent of your neighbor he is your competitor, but when organized you become each other’s protectors.” In Charley Guthrie’s own Okemah, the Sledge Hammer went to press with a mission “to hammer the system, not the individual,” trumpeting the Debsian credo that “Socialism will not interfere with the farmer who owns and farms his land. On the contrary it will render his possession of it far more secure than it can possibly be under capitalism, for he cannot lose it by debt, crop failure, or sickness. Co-operative farming will gradually develop under socialism, but the feature of the program that should appeal to the tenant farmers with the greatest force is the fact that the occupancy of the land will be in the hands of the men who work it, and they will have permanent homes without having to pay rent.”

Two-hundred-odd miles up the road, the Sentinel Sword of Truth damned “the banker, the money shark, the merchant, the petty grafter,” and “the court-house ring,” along with “their slaves, such as clerks, deputies, stenographers, etc.” who were “waiting for the harvest of the farmer”: “They are of the class that produces not. They get their living out of the sweat and toil of the farmer, the working class. It is the height of folly to expect them to work in the interest of the farmer.”

All these expressions of rural radicalism were not merely founded on the foreign theories of pernicious Marxist “kumrids,” as Charley Guthrie sneered at them in a series of published essays, but also upon a distinctly homegrown brand of Christian socialism. The “Kingdom of God” was possible on earth; such was the prevailing tenet of Protestant activism in Oklahoma. It was not for nothing that Steinbeck would make his most radical agitator an ex-preacher in The Grapes of Wrath; the prototypes for Reverend Jim Casy were to be found in the churches and revival tents, proclaiming the words of Leviticus 25:23 damning the landlords above all other parasites: “The Land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; and ye are strangers and sojourners with me.”

From Woody Guthrie, American Radical. Copyright 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This excerpt may not be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.