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.

March 2003By Comments

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 of the steeple/By the relief office I saw my people—/As they stood there hungry, /I stood there wondering if/God Blessed America for me.”

Guthrie still visited Pampa occasionally through November 1940 (but only once after that). And though Woody’ youngest surviving sister, Mary Jo Edgmon (who now lives in Seminole, Oklahoma), says otherwise, Joe Klein’ 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, argues that these periodic stops grew increasingly tense as old friends came to consider him an atheistic commie or just plain irresponsible. Frustrated with his inability to settle down, Mary divorced him in 1942, after having three kids. By the mid-forties, Guthriebegan feeling early signs of what turned out to be Huntington’ chorea, a hereditary disease that slowly shuts down the nervous system and that had taken the life of his mother, Nora. In 1948 he wrote his last major song, “Deportees,” and was finally hospitalized in 1954 in New York, where he died in 1967 at age 55. By then, the folk boom had spawned Dylan and many more singers like him, leading to folk rock and the “literary” lyric, which transformed pop music, and turning Guthrie into a revered pioneer. But back in Pampa, the town’ judgment of Guthrie—honky-tonking ne’er-do-well who became a Red and a neglectful husband and father—had hardened, and even after his death, locals rarely mentioned him.

Guthrie’ life and work have since been maligned and sanitized equally, but as usual, the truth is more complicated. Yes, Guthrie once wrote a column for People’ World, the Communist party newspaper, and enthusiastically defended his communist ties, saying communism was the only force fighting for the social and economic outcasts he sang for and about. But, no, he never joined the party; his life was too unstructured for that. Besides, even his angriest songs were nonideological, their only common thread being an unyielding support for the have-nots against the haves in a land of plenty. He also wrote amazing children’ songs like “Why Oh Why” and served wartime hitches in the merchant marine and the Army. As for his religious beliefs, he did claim at times to be an atheist, but he also spent periods believing in an eclectic Eastern-based spirituality and fundamentalist Christianity. And though he would disappear from his wife and kids for months at a time, his sister Mary Jo adds that he always stayed in touch. “We were all rootless, and we went twelve years once without seeing each other, but he wrote letters,” she says.

Pampa didn’t start coming to terms with all of Guthrie’ contradictions until Thelma Bray, today a feisty 79 years old, read the Klein biography and a Texas Observer article in 1992. That year she co-organized a tribute event, which soon merged into the town’s annual Chautauqua festival over Labor Day weekend, and wrote a pamphlet outlining a “walking tour” of Guthrie’s Pampa. “I just thought it was about time Pampa recognized we had a famous son,” she says, “and celebrated the fact that he had gone on to excel and was known all over this country.” On October 3, 1992, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, which then-governor Ann Richards declared Woody Guthrie Day in Texas, U.S. 60 across the Panhandle was named Woody Guthrie Memorial Highway. Around the same time, welder Rusty Neef unveiled his 150- by 10-foot steel sculpture on Hobart Street of the sheet-music intro to “This Land Is Your Land.”

Bray’s efforts made Guthrie less taboo, though she still ran into occasional opposition. In 1996 she sought to rename two blocks of Russell Street, where Woody and Mary once lived, after him, but she gave up on her plan after letters to the editor of the Pampa News complained that Guthrie was a “Communist or socialist” with “no family values.” But by 2000, when Bray and Forister came up with the plan for the Guthrie center, the town was mostly willing to overlook Guthrie’ reputation and reap some of the benefits his association with the community could produce. Like many small towns, Pampa keeps getting smaller, and if the Guthrie center does nothing more than attract enough visitors to necessitate additional motels and restaurants, it will have done its job. Still, Forister admits that the plan to use a radical folk singer to boost tourism gets “a little teasing sometimes from the older and more conservative people.” In Pampa, as in the rest of America, Woody Guthrie has become all things to all people. But whether it’s as communist or patriot, slacker or prolific artist, at least they’re now learning to accept him as one of their own.

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