Will Country Music Ever Fully Claim Woody Guthrie?

Aug 30, 2019

For many music lovers, Woody Guthrie is the quintessential folk artist.

He is the man who scrawled "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar and sang about social injustices.

But Guthrie's musical legacy reaches far beyond the folk designation. For some, he is a founding father of country music.

Deana McCloud is the executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK.
Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW

Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, is one such person.

"Country music has always been telling a story," she said. "That's all Woody was doing.

"All of his lyrics, all of his writing, he's telling a story. It's part of the story of who we all are as a people."

Guthrie's influence on contemporary music is undeniable: He remains a recognizable figure for fans of everything from punk to bluegrass. Despite his legacy, there's one institution that has not formally recognized his contributions: the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Ketch Secor, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, said Guthrie's everyman image is essential to country music's evolution. And yet his contributions seem to be largely forgotten.

"Woody Guthrie is such a great example of a country music maker who, through the twists and the turns of the definition of country, has been eradicated from the circle," he said. "I think that Woody's country-music making is at the heart of what he does because country music is a populist art form."

When the Dust Bowl of the 1930s decimated farmland in Oklahoma and other Plains states, many families migrated to California in the hopes of finding work.

Many of them would ultimately be turned away. Others were looked down upon for their rural heritage.

"Woody was seeing his people -- who were literally starving in this land of plenty – who when they left Oklahoma and went to California, they were met with signs that read, ‘No Negroes, no dogs, no Okies,' " McCloud said. "Which made Woody write ‘Do Re Mi.'

"He was seeing those people in those migrant camps, in those Hoovervilles, who were just struggling to survive. It was a personal thing for him. Those were his people."

Folk singer John McCutcheon
Credit Courtesy photo

Folk singer and Guthrie scholar John McCutcheon said Guthrie was raised at a time when Oklahoma was hit with the one-two punch of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

"He, like many people in Oklahoma and Kansas and Arkansas, lots of places, were driven out of their homes," McCutcheon said. "They became unsustainable. You could not farm the land.

"Ended up going to the migrant labor camps of the California Central Valley."

Many Oklahomans remained in California, ultimately working in the oil and agriculture industries in and around Bakersfield. With blue-collar workers flocking to honky-tonks in the area, a new sound was born: the rock-influenced Bakersfield sound.

One of its originators? Merle Haggard, whose family had fled the Dust Bowl and found solace in California.

Though he has been universally embraced by younger songwriters -- including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg, among others -- Guthrie remains a divisive figure. His ties to labor unions and the Communist Party remain a sticking point for many in his home state of Oklahoma.

A planned Guthrie exhibit in 1999 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City was canceled when a wealthy donor objected to the singer's politics. Guthrie was not inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame until 2006, despite being one of the state's most notable figures.

All this while one of his most famous songs, "This Land Is Your Land" -- written as an angry response to "America the Beautiful" -- continues to be sung by schoolchildren and contemporary protest singers.

Ketch Secor, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, said Guthrie's everyman image is essential to country music's evolution.
Credit Crackerfarm

Secor notes that Guthrie's politics have probably also kept him out of the country music narrative.

"Woody's politics have been, I think, the primary reason that he has not been contextualized as a country music maker, which is strange to me because Johnny Cash grew up on a socialized commune-like WPA-era collective, working a plot of land alongside others who had been given land to work collectively in the profit-sharing farming business," he said. "Stories like this are all through the country music origins."

This may also account for his absence from the Country Music Hall of Fame, notes McCloud.

"The move to have Woody inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame has been going on for many years," she said. "He's a member of every other hall of fame that there is.

"C'mon, he's a member of the Rock ‘n' Roll Hall of Fame and not the Country Music Hall of Fame?"

Secor said that Guthrie does have his champions within the organization. Secor is part of a committee at the Country Music Hall of Fame that makes recommendations for who should on the list of nominations in the legends category.

"I've been on this panel for about three years," he said. "Every year, at the top of the page: 'Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie.' So, we're working on it."

Whether accepted by storied institutions or not, few can deny Guthrie's rugged individualism.

"That fearlessness whenever it comes to addressing injustices head-on and not worrying about his personal safety," McCloud said. "We need a little bit more of that in today's world."

Old Crow Medicine Show's new album, Live at the Ryman arrives Oct. 4 on Columbia Records. Secor served as a consultant for and appears in Ken Burns' new documentary, Country Music, which begins airing Sept. 15 and can be viewed in Wichita on KPTS, Chanel 8.

Old Crow Medicine Show will appear in Kansas City on Oct. 2 at Crossroads.

McCutcheon's latest release is To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger. In 2011, McCutcheon released This Land: Woody Guthrie's America. He will appear at Winfield's Walnut Valley Festival on Sept. 20 and 21.

Listeners can learn more about the Woody Guthrie Center at woodyguthriecenter.org.

This story is part of the KMUW series Gravel Roads and Lost Highways, which is made possible in part through a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. KMUW is partnering with PBS to promote the Ken Burns documentary Country Music.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.