The Myth of Saint Woody

by Matthew Carney


It’s easy to want to idolize Woody Guthrie. The guy was an adventurer, a wandering bard with a soft spot for people denied their fair shake. He riled his era’s villains (Joseph McCarthy [1]) and rubbed shoulders with its geniuses (John Steinbeck [2]), all while looking like he’d just hopped off the nearest freight car. Guthrie frequented political rallies and scribbled endless prose, articulating in words and song the feelings that the country’s poorest, out-of-luck inhabitants could only express in grumbles. He traveled like a jolly thief, reinforcing the east and west coasts’ perception of good Midwesterner humor that Will Rogers first introduced them to.

Guthrie lived a romantic life, one envied, admired, emulated, and recorded by so many after him that it all inevitably snowballed into a great big honking mythology, one so large as to overshadow his failings. And up until 1980, when he read Joe Klein’s definitive biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, Bob Santelli was one of the many devout followers of Saint Woody, an unrealistic man who, in his eyes, did no wrong.

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Santelli grew up in West New York, New Jersey in the 1950s and ’60s, where he first encountered “This Land is Your Land” the same way many a grade-schooler did. And like so many other Baby Boomers, Santelli eventually worshipped Guthrie through another of his heroes. That was Bob Dylan, whose “Song to Woody” appeared on side two of his 1962 eponymous debut album. From there, Santelli devoured everything he could find that bore Guthrie’s name, including the memoir Bound for Glory.

“Prior to [reading A Life ] I’d seen the movie that was made about Woody Guthrie’s life [the David Carradine-starring 1976 film Bound for Glory ], I’d read everything I could about him, got his albums, knew his music, but I didn’t know much about the man,” said Santelli, now the Grammy Museum’s executive director and a many-times-published rock historian. “Joe Klein’s book … he’s the one who shed light on the fact that this man—as interesting as he was—had faults. And I didn’t think he had any.”

While loving and playful, Guthrie—who was born in Okemah in 1912 and grew up mostly there and in Pampa, Texas—made a habit of setting out on the road to scare up work as a singer and performer of odd jobs, instead of tending to his eight children and three wives. The man was undeniably impulsive; he “roamed and rambled,” as his famous song says, setting west for California and east for New York on several occasions, whether driving or thumbing his way along the highway, leaving those closest to him far behind in the Oklahoma dust. He’d send money when he could, but while he was out surveying the people, places, and things that constituted the wide country he lived in, his first wife Mary and their children found themselves stuck at home, mired in the terribly unpredictable poverty of the Great Depression.

“Back in Texas and California, when Woody was with Mary, he was young, wild, and reckless; he didn’t really know the meaning of fatherhood. Immaturity and a constant thirstfor adventure and music always seemed to get in the way,” Santelli wrote in his recently published This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folksong . “He wasn’t even the best of friends to people who considered him a friend,” Santelli added in his conversation with me.

By the early 1950s, alcohol and Huntington’s disease amplified Guthrie’s volatility. “The respect that fellow folksingers and people in New York folk circles had for Guthrie never wavered, but increasingly they saw him as a tragic figure,” Santelli wrote. “At home, [second wife] Marjorie witnessed wild mood swings; sometimes there was no alcohol involved, which at first puzzled her, then frightened her. The worst part was that Woody was growing violent, and more than once she feared for her life and the welfare of their children.”

Though reading Klein’s book may have cracked Santelli’s stained-glass window painting of a blameless Saint Woody, his lifelong appreciation for the man’s work—particularly Guthrie’s hallmark tune “This Land is Your Land”—couldn’t be deteriorated. Instead, it refocused itself into a quest for knowledge. As a journalist, academic, historian, and head of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Experience Music Project, Santelli slipped questions about “This Land” into interviews with high-profile musicians for decades, all the while scrutinizing the Guthrie canon in search of a spot where he could nestle the book he felt welling up inside of him.

Santelli said he didn’t think he could add anything of substance to the biographies of Joe Klein or University of Southern California professor Ed Cray, whose Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie  was published in 2004. So he opted to work two stories into a single narrative: those of the man and his most famous song. The premise seemed wide enough to stand on—though it was still missing just one little thing before he could get started on the project.

“Quite honestly, up until 2009, I didn’t have an ending for it,” Santelli said. “I didn’t know—the story goes on, y’know? And it’ll continue to go on after this book. But my sense is that, when I saw Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sing ‘This Land is Your Land’ at the Obama inauguration I thought ‘Ah! That’s it—there’s the end of the book.’ And it was the perfect place to end. And that’s when I started working on it in earnest.”

This Land is Your Land  reads like Santelli’s personal attempt to parse the man out from his mythology, and gauge the true reach of his legacy. It doesn’t simply weigh the good in his heart and his dedication to the downtrodden against the people he hurt, in a stark black and white. Rather, Santelli lays out the facts of Guthrie’s messy life—his protestations and patriotism, [3] his ambition and his social failings, and the hard-scrabble America he became intimate with—and uses it all to examine just what Guthrie meant when he sang songs that resonated within those lined up outside the relief office.

“The sad and interesting thing is that many of the topics Woody wrote about in the 1930s are still relevant today: immigration reform, bank foreclosures, poverty, ecological disasters,” Santelli said. “These are all things he had his finger on and wrote eloquently about in the 1930s and 1940s and, wow, here we are again dealing with this stuff.”

Could such compelling songwriting come from the pen of a man contentedly residing in the lap of American luxury? Guthrie’s fallibility lends truth to his words. And that never rang truer with Santelli than when he interviewed Mary, Guthrie’s first wife, then in her mid-90s.

“She’s feisty, and she said that living with Woody was hard—it was a hard life—and when [they divorced], she was glad. I admire her,” Santelli said. “She was very young when she got married, and she was very young to be a mother of three kids and yet she had the maturity to know, ‘Even though I love this guy, for the sake of my kids, I need to get out of here and let him do this thing and I’m going to go home and raise my children.’ And that’s where Woody was in major fault. Woody, on occasion, would send money home and write to find out what was going on. But he was preoccupied with making something of his songs and doing good with them. He got a lot of passes in life because of that. People excuse a lot of his faults because of the general goodness his songs were able to do.”

That Guthrie’s songs—particularly “This Land”—did some good is undeniable. His album Dust Bowl Ballads, recorded by Alan Lomax for RCA Victor in New York in 1940, told in plain language the hurt and suffering of the underprivileged, uneducated, and down-on-their-luck. “Dust Bowl Ballads  would come to influence a whole corps of Guthrie-styled singers and songwriters, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Bruce Springsteen,” wrote Santelli. “Once again, Guthrie’s flair for language flourished in the words he used to describe the roots of the songs and the rationale for singing and recording them. It was beautiful, homegrown prose, plain and simple and wonderfully descriptive.”

When you take the time to understand the conflicted, imperfect artist who endeavored to write these songs, his work becomes a richer, more truthful depiction of a broken-down country trying to sweep its problems out the back door. His gritty depiction of people “wonderin’ if this land’s still made for you and me” stands in stark, realistic contrast to Irving Berlin’s overtly patriotic, if poetically vivid and evocative “God Bless America,” which Guthrie found complacent and blind.

“[‘God Bless America’] had become the song of America, a national obsession, and it rubbed Woody the wrong way,” Santelli wrote. “He was no fool; he knew why the song was so popular. It provided comfort to people—in his view, a false comfort. If God was going to bless America, reckoned Guthrie, why was He waiting so long? The nation was in desperate shape.”

Santelli dedicates an entire chapter of This Land  to Berlin and “God Bless America,” and compares and contrasts it with Guthrie’s work throughout the whole of the book. “If you look at the lyrics in‘God Bless America,’ there’s a parallel to ‘This Land is Your Land,’ and it’s Woody imitating Berlin,” Santelli said. “There’s an important connection between the two great American artists.”

It doesn’t stop there. Both songs would eventually be proffered as potential replacements for “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the American national anthem, though for drastically different reasons. Both artists sat on the lyrics for years after first writing them, revising and retooling them over time. Guthrie even initially named his song “God Blessed America,” rebutting Berlin’s song all the more glaringly.

“The sixth and final verse of Guthrie’s ‘God Blessed America’ was as barbed and choppy as verse number four,” Santelli wrote. “Its message was unmistakable: the American utopia that Berlin wrote about didn’t exist for all its citizens.”

That message, and the labor he endeavored to spread it, would become the cornerstone of Guthrie’s legacy, not necessarily because he was a skilled songwriter, but because they came from the underrepresented, suffering part of America that he called home.


1. Though his FBI file reached back to 1941, Woody Guthrie never actually testified before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, as he was hospitalized at the time Communist party member Harvey Matusow implied that Guthrie “was a member of the cultural division of the Communist Party.” His friend and fellow folksinger Pete Seeger appeared before the committee, however, and was soon added to the notorious showbusiness blacklist.

2. Actor Will Geer introduced Guthrie—then living in California—to Steinbeck in the summer of 1939, the same year the writer won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Grapes of Wrath. Guthrie claimed never to have read the book himself, though he would see the film—which he also acted as an unpaid, uncredited music advisor for—in New York City a few years later, and write songs that referenced its characters, such as “Vigilante Man” and “Tom Joad.” After hearing Guthrie perform, Steinbeck would later write in his foreword to Guthrie’s and Pete Seeger’s annotated collection of protest songs Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, “Harsh-voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody. There is nothing sweet about the songs he sings.”

3. One of the most often overlooked parts of Guthrie’s life was his time spent serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II. Predictably, he wasn’t the best soldier, though he did nearly lose his life on two separate occasions where German U-boats attacked vessels he served aboard in the Atlantic. But what Woody lacked in focus and work ethic, he made up for with his music. According to Santelli, he wrote dozens of “amazing, funny, satirical songs about Adolf Hitler and Naziism and about how America was going to spank the Nazis and win the war.If anybody wanted to write another whole book about Woody Guthrie, that’s one place to look for sure.”