Prodigal Son

Left-wing folk singer Woody Guthrie honed his trade in Pampa, but 67 years later, the town is just beginning to welcome him back home.

MY FRIEND AND FORMER EMPLOYER RUSS Barnard, who published Country Music magazine in New York for more than two decades, hails from the Panhandle town of Pampa. About a year after entering Yale University, in 1956, he joined the burgeoning folk-music revival and first heard the name of Woody Guthrie—the wellspring of modern American folk music and composer of “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and a couple thousand other songs. Sometime later Russ was stunned to learn that Guthrie had lived eight formative years in Pampa. During a trip home in 1981, he visited then-sheriff Rufe Jordan, who had attended school with Guthrie. “I asked him how I could grow up in Pampa and never hear the name,” Russ says. Sheriff Jordan hemmed and hawed until Russ asked point-blank, “Could it have been Woody’s politics?” The sheriff blurted out, “Oh, no, we didn’t know about that pinko stuff until much later.” Russ felt like he’d gotten his answer.

In large part because of his radical political affiliations, Woody Guthrie became a pariah in the town where he first took up music. Elsewhere, generations of musicians and fans have battled for a piece of his legacy since his death, in 1967, and in the past five years, there’s been a small-scale Guthrie revival. British songwriter Billy Bragg and American alt-country band Wilco recently collaborated on two successful collections of previously unrecorded Guthrie songs, Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue, Volume II (2000). In 2000 the Smithsonian Institution displayed the exhibit “This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,” which then hit the road for a national tour. And this year, several Nashville organizations combined to present a month-long Woody Guthrie Ninetieth Year Celebration, featuring films, a seminar, exhibits, and concerts, while Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave led a tribute tour through 23 cities in five weeks. Even Guthrie’ hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, has cashed in on its ties to the itinerant folkie, holding its own annual celebration since 1998.

Pampa, meanwhile, remained mostly content to sweep Guthrie under the rug. But today, the temptation to quote the young Bob Dylan, Guthrie’ greatest disciple, is irresistible: “The times they are a-changin’.” With an eye on tourism, Pampa is slowly—and sometimes awkwardly—embracing its former black sheep. In 2000 the chamber of commerce and some local enthusiasts headed by committee member Thelma Bray began planning a Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center, including both a museum and a performance space, in the former Harris drugstore building, where Woody once worked. A bare-bones room is already being used for occasional jam sessions, and the center is seeking funds to renovate the building and have it open regularly by the end of this year. Well, I say it’s about time.

Guthrie was seventeen in 1929 when he relocated from Okemah to Pampa, a farming and ranching center turned oil-boom town, to help his father, Charley, run a “cot house” on Cuyler Street, in the low-down Little Juarez district south of the railroad tracks. There, oil-field workers paid 25 cents to sleep in shifts on first-floor cots, while prostitutes rented rooms upstairs by the week. In Pampa, Woody never finished high school but read voraciously in the public library, taking special interest in religion, philosophy, and psychology. He worked sporadically, mainly painting signs, store windows, and murals and even dabbling in faith healing. Across Cuyler Street from the cot house, at the Harris drugstore, a front for a bootleg-whiskey business, Guthrie found a discarded guitar and began learning to play. He formed a string band that included his best friend, Matt Jennings, whose younger sister Mary became the first of Guthrie’ three wives. But music was just something he did in the honky-tonks for kicks and spare change. In fact, according to the few people still alive that knew him at the time, Woody scorned ambition altogether; he simply wanted to drink, hang out, and chase girls. And he showed no interest in politics.

“He had about the curliest hair I ever saw,” schoolmate Viola Ingrum, 88, says affectionately. “He was always joking and cutting up, always composing limericks.” Mary Jennings Guthrie Boyle (who today lives in Bishop, California) says she was attracted to him because “he wasn’t like the other boy I’d dated. I was fifteen and things affected me a lot and Woody was so outgoing and entertaining.” Not everyone found his antics and lack of ambition so endearing. This was during the Great Depression, when, to scrape by, many people gladly toiled through eighteen-hour days. Some, like 91-year-old Connie Lockhart, who drove Woody around the oil fields to sing to the roughnecks to promote Dilley Bakery, resented him: “He could’ve worked, but he begged for groceries. He begged for everything.” As John Forister, a current member of the chamber of commerce, says, chuckling, “Woody irritated a lot of people, no question about that.”

By the time Guthrie left Pampa for Los Angeles, in 1936, he’d begun writing his own songs. “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” the best-known from that time, detailed the dust storm that devastated Pampa in 1935. His songs grew more political as he lived in both California, where he soon began entertaining fellow Dust Bowl refugees in the squalid migrant-labor camps, and New York City, where he moved in 1940 and fell in with the city’ bohemian artist and intellectual circles. In the years after he left Pampa, Guthrie was astonishingly productive; he wrote his highly praised self-mythologizing autobiography, Bound for Glory, and created dozens of songs that became folk and country standards—”If You Ain’t Got the Do-Re-Mi,” “Oklahoma Hills,” “The Philadelphia Lawyer,” “Roll On, Columbia,” “The Grand Coulee Dam,” “Hard Traveling”—plus one of his best-known songs, “This Land Is Your Land,” which was eventually transformed into a patriotic ditty sung by school kids across the country. In truth, it was a defiant rejoinder to “God Bless America.” The rarely heard full version grows more biting with each verse before concluding, “One bright sunny morning in the shadow

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