It’s been a year to the day since I was honored to receive the Woody Guthrie Thinking Blogger Award, and as if to remind me that it it is time to pass the torch, the Texas Observer this month is featuring Woody as its cover story.
Trouble is, I got nothin’
Let me tell you all how it’s come to this pass.
I received the award from James Annan, who in turn received it from John Nielsen-Gammon.
I am absolutely a huge fan of both John Nielsen-Gammon’s and of James Annan’s. I respect their integrity and intellectual capabilities, and would never fail to lend them an ear if they have something to say.
But before I was a fan of either of them, I was a fan of Woody Guthrie, and to pass an award with Woody’s name to me is a double honor, and rather a confusing one.
I have to honor his memory as well as the intent of the prior recipients.
I’m guessing John was familiar enough with the cultural overtones of getting an award named after one of the heroes of the American left (“the old left” as us “new left” types used to call them). The fact is that Woody is sometimes a bit too communist for me to be comfortable about it. I guess being a Republican appointee to a statewide office somewhat immunized John, and after all, “this land is your land” and all, never mind the near-forgotten subversive “no trespassing” verse of the patriotic anthem. And of course James is in some sort of time bubble which allows him to actually do honest-to-god science, but as a sort of penalty, in his alternate universe there is no American folk music.
I think the peculiar fate of the award came when Greenfyre, perceiving the oddity of an award named after Woody residing in Canada, passed it off to a genuine Okie, meteorologist Dan Satterfield. The thing is, nowhere is the history of left-populaism more buried than on the high plains of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, where Woody hailed from. Indeed, it’s precisely this disconnect from its left-populist roots on the high plains that gives the Texas Observer story its poignancy.
The article, by Mary Helen Specht, celebrates the discovery of the manuscript of Woody’s novel “House of Earth” includes these passages about the town where Woody came of age and the bootleg speakeasy where he worked:
I pointed to the beautiful wooden bar that stood along one wall. “Where did he keep the Jamaican Jake?” I asked, referring to the bootleg liquor that Woody sold alongside the soda, at least according to his colorful autobiography Bound for Glory. Thelma frowned. (Later we were passed a folded note letting us know that she didn’t like to talk about Woody’s “darker” side.) “That’s not the original bar,” she said. Even the hand painted “Harris Drugs” sign out front was new – the one painted and signed by Woody has been sandblasted in the 1970s. I expressed surprise. By the 1970s Woody Guthrie was a household name.
The board members [of the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center] sighed, explaining that even today “official Pampa” has not fully embraced the Guthrie legacy. Last year, to mark the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth, they requested city approval to rename a two-block stretch of Russell Street, where Guthrie had lived with his first wife. The request was denied, and only later was the board allowed to put up a memorial sign, as long as board members “didn’t make a big deal out of it.”
It’s not unusual for an artist’s hometown to lag behind the appreciation gravy train – just look at Lubbock and Buddy or Port Arthur and Janis. Still, such towns usually come around to the idea of tourist dollars. But even in 1992, when Thelma Bray suggested that Pampa acknowledge and take advantage of its connection to Woody Guthrie, not one person at the Chamber of Commerce volunteered to help. Someone even stood up and protested, hissing “Woody Guthrie was an atheist and a communist.”
Though it was true that Woody played for a number of “red” rallies over the years, the Guthrie supporters at the Center didn’t put much stock in this kind of thinking. Woody wasn’t a communist, they say, so much as an activist for the working class, an artist willing to tell the stories of the down and out. The Guthrie Center’s board members like to quote his famous saying, “Left wing, chicken wing, it’s all the same to me.”
As Klein writes Woody Guthrie “wandered onto the stage of the Forrest Theater and breathed some life into a dying tradition.” Without Woody Guthrie, would there have been a Sixties folk music revival? Would there have been a Seeger or a Dylan or a Baez? Maybe, but certainly not in the form they ended up taking.
In short, then, though on his tragically early deathbed at the time, Woody was a key figure of the cultural foment of the 60s and 70s, for all the good and all the bad that it did.
What’s more, and this is crucial to me, Woody is a link back to prairie populism, back to the days when left populism united farmers and laborers, and was the cultural touchstone of the high prairie, including Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. Coastal intellectuals, trying to explain how the rural culture became so xenophobic and neofascistic as it sadly is today, are quick to spin tales of the Scots-Irish, respect for local military authority, and hostility to outsiders. Woody’s very existence reminds us what a gross oversimplification that story is, that people and cultures can change, that the vox populi can learn to sing different tunes. Ethnicity is not destiny for white folk any more than for anybody else. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
But what a whitewash, the attempted erasure of Woody Guthrie from the national consciousness. It’s surely very nearly complete on his home turf, the good efforts of the board of the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center of Pampa TX notwithstanding.
Read his autobiography if you want to understand America. You will never look at it the same way again.
Another aspect of Woody’s life that I find deeply affecting is his enthusiasm for hydroelectric projects. I am sure his enthusiasm for big dams would be tempered today, but today’s left could do with a dose of something like that enthusiasm. It’s not about dams, it’s about how greatness awaits a humanity that learns to cooperate,
We will not find our way out of our present predicament without confidence in the capacity of the human spirit and human abilities, such that when all of us, literally all of us, work together, there is nothing beyond our reach, nothing beyond our capacities. Even a dignified future for the earth, shared between humans and the rest of nature, is possible in the same way the Hoover Dam is possible. This is not grumpy, defensive, anger-driven leftism, it is a glorious and in my view realistic view of what human capacity can achieve if not wasted on bickering and jockeying for position.
So now I’ve got a lot of constraints raining down on my head.
John Nielsen-Gammon has proposed that “With other Guthrie threads out there doing who knows what, I propose that this Guthrie remain officially ensconced in the realm of earth Science bloggers who think critically and hope for a better world through better education and an honest media.”
I won’t go against John if there isn’t a good reason to. And there are plenty of reasons to agree to that.
But frankly I don’t want to pass this along to someone who can’t string together two sentences about Woody Guthrie either. I can let that slide, I suppose.
Regardless, I would like someone who is not only a thinking earth scientist, committed to creating an informed and capable public discourse on the issues of how modernity and nature can coexist. I also want to pass this along to someone who is in touch with people and places, in ways that are uncommon among rootless academics. Preferably someone who can hum the tune of a Woody Guthrie tune that isn’t “This Land”. That would be even better. Best of all would be someone who is optimistic that a new flowering of the human spirit can and will overcome our absurd bickering to create a better future.
Finally, it doesn’t have to be someone who agrees with me about everything (that being the empty set), nor for that matter someone who agrees with Woody. But it ought to be someone who doesn’t know left wing or right wing from chicken wing (*), and is willing to give every idea due consideration no matter where it comes from.
I actually know someone who almost fits the bill, except, dammit, he doesn’t blog. But surely I’m missing someone somewhere.
Nominees, please? Pretty please?
(*) Did he actually say that?