Woody Guthrie Defines Folkways and Folklore

I’m currently revisiting Robert L. Dorman’s 1993 monograph, Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press). Remarks on Dorman are on the way, but I wanted to pass the Guthrie excerpt along first. At the outset of chapter 5, Dorman opens with a piece of correspondence Woody Guthrie sent to Alan Lomax on September 19, 1940. Within, Guthrie expanded on the philosophy, or the why, of a folk song. Verbatim, as the tail end of the Great Depression slipped further and further in to the Second World War, Guthrie said,

Left to right, Sonny Terry (obscured), Woody Guthrie, Lilly Mae Ledford and Alan Lomax in New York, 1944. Photo online with The Library of Congress, Alan Lomax Collection.

Left to right, Sonny Terry (obscured), Woody Guthrie, Lilly Mae Ledford and Alan Lomax in New York, 1944. Photo online with The Library of Congress, Alan Lomax Collection.

A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is, or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is — that’s folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that politicians couldn’t find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work. We don’t aim to hurt you or scare you when we get to feeling sorta folksy and make up some folk lore, we’re a doing all we can to make it easy on you. (Dorman, 1993: 145)

That is the power of a good folk singer: someone who can speak and sing in a focused enough way to reflect the localized realities of the times, and with enough abstraction to speak to the ages. In this regard, Guthrie was a genius creator and producer of folklore, certainly a reflection of the folk of his times. Note: Woody’s acoustic guitar and folk songs killed fascists, too.


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