Drawing the Line

by James Vance


The estimated 1,000-plus songs he wrote have made him the de facto poet laureate of common humanity. Generations of schoolchildren have learned his “This Land Is Your Land,” and for countless protesters and folk singers his work has been an essential part of their repertoire for decades … yet Woody Guthrie was never just a songwriter. He wrote endless reams of prose. He potted and sculpted and created fanciful constructs from found objects. And, throughout the roughly 30 years he spent singing and composing, he was also drawing and painting, making as many statements with his cartoons and illustrations as with his music.

Like any child, Guthrie invented songs and doodled pictures during his boyhood in Okemah, the rowdy boomtown where he grew up; in his book Bound for Glory, he recalled inventing his first music and lyrics before he was old enough to go to school, and classmates remembered his facility with caricatures and comic sketches. As he entered adulthood, art and music would become twin callings—but in his late teens they were already more than simple avocations; at the age of 17 they were essential to his survival.

His life had come apart two years earlier when his mother, unhinged by the effects of Huntington’s chorea, poured kerosene over his father and set him ablaze. With the senior Guthrie shipped off to Pampa, Texas to begin a painful recovery and his mother committed to the hospital for the insane in Norman, Woody was left to his own devices. Much of that time he was homeless, scrounging meals and shelter wherever he could, sometimes attending school, other times embracing truancy with gusto and even dipping a toe into the hobo life before returning to his sketchy existence on the Okemah streets. During that time he learned to play harmonica, and was able to pick up spare change or a meal by playing on sidewalks and in bars.

LISTEN: Hear Woody sing, fans read his writing, and folklorist Guy Logsdon discuss Woody’s roots.

In 1929 he moved to Pampa, sharing space with his father in a ramshackle structure that served as a flophouse at street level and a cathouse upstairs. Impressed by Woody’s drawings of the girls on the second floor and the oil workers who flopped below, his father ponied up for a cartooning correspondence course that introduced him to the basics of the day. Woody’s style would evolve from the stock approach of late Jazz Age cartoons, but there were elements of that era’s conventions that would turn up in his drawings for years to come.

A Guthrie cartoon would always be recognizable for its rubber-limbed figures with their untamed hair, peanut noses, and gumdrop eyes. Shrugging in dismay or gesticulating wildly with fingers thick as sausages, they scurried and capered before perpetually leaning buildings and hastily dashed windows that gave even the settings a sense of being manic and alive. Though never as polished, his cartoons were strikingly reminiscent of the work of E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye. Those looking for a more recent point of reference should seek out the work of Kevin Huizenga, whose characters bear an almost unsettling resemblance to Woody’s pen-and-ink people.

Though living with his father and giving high school one last (unsuccessful) try, Woody was still supporting himself. For several years he worked as a soda jerk, a job that also entailed slipping bootleg hooch to customers whose thirst couldn’t be slaked by a cherry phosphate. In the drugstore’s back room he found a discarded guitar and took his first painful steps toward learning how to play it. And at the business end of the establishment, the witty placards he made for the shop window convinced the owner to hire Woody to paint a permanent sign across the front of the building. The lettering was idiosyncratic but striking, and soon other Pampa businesses were hiring Woody to contribute signs and window drawings on their buildings, too. Still in his teens, even as he struggled to master that adopted guitar, he was already a commercial artist.

It was a pattern that informed the rest of his time in Pampa, intermittent employment behind the soda fountain supplemented by proceeds from art and music. He continued painting signs around the area, his efforts expanding into elaborate advertising murals. Like many an artist before him, he was no stranger to the notion of trading drawings and paintings for the price of a sandwich, and occasionally submitted cartoons hawking a product to those items’ manufacturers, receiving a check or free samples in return. At the same time, with his increasing confidence on the guitar, he was not only back to busking in streets and saloons, but was soon forming acts with other local musicians, and paying gigs became more frequent. He continued to enjoy the money and approval his artwork earned him but, as he recounted in Bound for Glory: “A picture—you buy it once and it bothers you for forty years; but with a song, you sing it out … and then when you quit singing it, it’s gone, and you get a job singing it again.” For a young man trying to make ends meet, it was a no-brainer.

But the hold that art had on him remained firm. His solo act often included his version of a traditional vaudeville form called a “chalk talk.” Laying down his guitar, Woody would deliver a folksy, corny line of patter while knocking out a humorous crayon sketch, the punch line coming when he’d flip the picture over and reveal that it was something completely different upside down. When he left Pampa for good in 1937, bound for California, it was with his precious Russian red sable brushes carefully bundled within an old shirt so he could support himself with his artwork as he traveled across the continent. As for music … well, he’d pawned his guitar the week before.

Thumbing his way down the highway, he snagged a ride from three teenagers in a stolen Model A; in Alamogordo, New Mexico, he stepped away to rustle up a quick sign-painting job and returned to find the hot Ford long gone, the brushes he’d counted on as his meal ticket still bundled in the back seat. Throughout the trek, he continued to think of himself as a painter and artist, but it was with the occasional borrowed guitar that he managed to scrounge the price of an occasional meal. In California, a combination of luck and circumstances landed him a daily radio program, and Woody the sign painter began to fade into the past.

The reputation he would earn as a crusader for the working class and the dispossessed still lay ahead; in 1937 he was only 26 and a far cry from a sophisticated thinker. On his own after the tragedies that dotted his youth, he hadn’t so much grown up as grown inward. Even after he became the great Dust Bowl poet, he would remain an irresponsible man-child in his personal and professional relationships. The over-the-top rube persona he projected on the air was an extension of the eccentric class-clown image he’d cultivated for his own amusement in Pampa … but as revealed in the personal notebooks he kept, that first year in California saw him beginning to think about matters greater than himself. A social conscience was under development.

The notebooks were filled with editorial cartoons intended only for his own eyes, ranging from personal concerns like the unfair housing policies that had made his life difficult, to more far-reaching political issues. By 1939, he was drawing posters and small pamphlets, urging citizens to register to vote and laborers to join The Congress of Industrial Organizations. At least part of this social awakening can be attributed to the influence of Frank Burke, owner of the station that broadcast Woody’s program, and a vociferous left-wing reformer. When Burke founded a newspaper called The Light as a vehicle for his passions, he asked Woody to contribute, hoping that the singer’s wry, bucolic patter might translate into something like the breezy social commentary of Will Rogers.

What he got was Woody’s first attempts at creating editorial cartoons for public consumption, odd little offerings that might combine lively drawings with quotations from his voluminous reading, or simple sloganeering—not quite the witty homespun philosophy that Burke had envisioned. Later attempts would come closer to the mark, though some of the attitudes expressed—an ambivalence toward unions, for instance—were still less assured than what we now think of as pure Guthrie. But it was a start; more, and better, cartoons would soon flow from Woody’s brush.

The Burke connection led him to The People’s World, California’s Communist Party newspaper. Impressed with Woody’s increasingly political songs, Party members asked him to perform at rallies and fund-raisers; within a few months, he approached a People’s World writer who had a regular show on Burke’s station and pitched a column with the Guthrie slant. The result, a short daily feature called “Woody Sez,” debuted in May of 1939. Filled with deliberate misspellings and other features of the hick savant characterization he’d honed on the radio, it offered humorously trenchant takes on politics and current events. Each installment also featured a cartoon.

His drawing style had become simplified, less obligated to the cross-hatched renderings learned in his correspondence course days. For The People’s World he created exuberantly brushed cartoons to which he added a subtle wash for toning, but never to the point of straining for sophistication. The goofy slit-eyed characterizations were the same, but often pared down to little more than silhouettes. In the tradition of the best cartooning, the words and pictures worked more interdependently to make their points. Demonstrating the feature’s popularity, the paper began running a second, smaller, Guthrie cartoon on the front page that directed readers to the “Woody Sez” space on the editorial page. The following year he moved to New York and, within months, had moved “Woody Sez” to the pages of The Daily Worker until the close of 1940.

That was the end of his public cartooning career; his energies were given more and more to the music for which he had become famous, and the prose that he could generate for hours on end. His most famous prose work, of course, was his 1943 quasi-memoir, Bound for Glory, which offered some of the most accomplished drawings he ever created, impressionistic portraits that were evocative split-seconds of his subjects’ lives. Those pen and ink works weren’t cartoons, but traditional illustrations (well, as traditional as anything Woody Guthrie ever did) that served as a bridge between his old style and the more mature approach he would explore in his final decades.

He still drew with the public in mind from time to time. And he was always good for the odd impromptu poster. In the mid-‘40s, Folkways Records commissioned him to illustrate booklets to be inserted into album sleeves, and he submitted countless concept sketches for record covers. During a brief stint in the Army at the end of World War II, he even found himself painting signs again. But there was also a vast amount of artwork that he created solely for himself or a favored few.

In sketchbooks, pocket calendars, random sheets of paper, Woody Guthrie illustrated his life almost obsessively. He wrote letters to friends and family that comprised entire notebooks, frequently accompanied by sketches both clever and moody. Over the years his drawing became increasingly abstract, the once-lively figures now reduced to nebulous suggestions, Picasso-esque female forms and dry-brushed portraits that seemed to be dissolving on the page like fading memories.

In recent years, Guthrie’s family has attempted to unearth and catalog the artwork he left behind, much of it never before seen by the public. But at this date, no one will ever know just how many cartoons and drawings were given away or scrawled across a letter or random postcard, scattered back into the wind that first inspired the Dust Bowl poet who drew them.