Hey, Hey, Woody Guthrie, I Made You a Film
The AFS Texas Documentary Tour: 'Ain't Got No Home'
Whatever your connection to the man or his music, Peter Frumkin's film Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home will have a little something for you. For those who've spent any time around a campfire or on a school-bus trip to anywhere, the words to Guthrie's opus, "This Land Is Your Land," are more familiar than the national anthem. For leftie Baby Boomer fans of Guthrie's folk music legacy as carried on by protegés like Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and son Arlo, the film will flesh out the singular lyrical-historical-political arc of Guthrie's all-too-short and disproportionately prolific creative life. And for those flummoxed by how a populist Dust Bowl drifter from Okemah, Okla. (by way of Pampa, Texas, and L.A.), would come to call New York City home or, for that matter, that within his massive archive there are a number of songs celebrating Jewish culture and history recorded recently by the Klezmatics well, the film, co-produced by PBS' American Masters, explains it all.
Frumkin's interest in Guthrie grew out of an interest in the music of Guthrie's acolytes and the discovery of just how strong the link was for musicians like Dylan and Seeger. Reading Joe Klein's Guthrie biography, Frumkin was struck by how much more diverse the cowboy minstrel turned out to be than he'd originally thought. "It's very easy to think of him as a not very smart hick who could write three-chord songs," Frumkin says. "Actually, he was a very, very bright, an almost pathologically creative, self-educated guy who could sop up huge amounts of information and pour out huge amounts of art, from songs to prose, drawings and paintings. He was a compulsive creator that's a good way to describe him." The filmmaker also admired Guthrie's visceral sense of right and wrong, and his ability to live by those principles.
Mostly. "He wasn't entirely consistent," Frumkin adds. "He certainly didn't treat his first family all that well." Guthrie abandoned Mary Jennings and their three kids for years when he left Pampa for California to escape the Dust Bowl and the Depression. "That he would do that was amazing, yes, but probably not all that atypical," Frumkin says. "Probably the reason it seemed so striking in Guthrie's case is that he lived out so many of his other principles in such an admirable way." Jennings, now in her 90s, and long since remarried, appears in the film talking dispassionately about her years with Guthrie, though, Frumkin admits, "She's probably a little more bitter than she appears in the film."
Guthrie's plainspoken wisdom and political protest songs would earn him notoriety in L.A. as a radio personality and propel him eastward into the welcoming arms of New York's leftist community, where he sang for and hobnobbed with union organizers, anti-fascists, Communists, artists, writers, and other musicians. In 1940, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Guthrie in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress. During that time, Guthrie made a series of recordings for the legendary label Folkways. He also wrote and performed with the influential, politically radical Almanac Singers, some of whose members would later become the commercially successful folk music group the Weavers.
The Huntington's disease that would ravage and finally kill him as it had his mother and two of his eight children began to take its toll on Guthrie while married to Marjorie Mazia and living in Coney Island with her and their family in the late Forties. Guthrie died in 1967 at the age of 55, following 13 years of hospitalizations.
Austin Chronicle: How would you sum up Guthrie's legacy?
Peter Frumkin: When the folk revival started happening around the late Fifties and early Sixties, people were rediscovering Guthrie, and they found this guy who had used music as a social tool or weapon. In the Sixties, music became one of the primary weapons of the progressive part of the country. ... Songs didn't have to be about cars and girls and boys, there could be a real serious content to music. That's probably his greatest legacy.
AC: Let's talk about his most familiar song, "This Land Is Your Land."
PF: "This Land" sat in his suitcase for four or five years before he finally recorded it in 1944. Apparently, Guthrie would sit and write lyrics and toss them away. The melody was based on a Carter Family song, and the Carter Family had stolen theirs from an old African-American Baptist hymn. For so many of his songs he stole melodies; everybody did that at that time. There are melodies that Guthrie used five or six times for different songs. He wasn't a great musician or composer of music; it was really all about words. There are several thousand songs of Guthrie's in his archive that have never been recorded and that don't have melodies.
At some point in the Fifties, "This Land" became everybody's favorite folk song. LBJ suggested it should be made the second national anthem or something like that. Sometime in the Fifties or early Sixties, everybody started singing it at summer camps and around campfires, and it passed into another realm. Another aspect of the song that we don't touch on in the film is that there are a few verses that he wrote but never recorded and these verses are sort of radical. One is seen as an attack the concept of private property:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
So, when you look at the unrecorded verses, it is kind of a radical song. But it's the recorded verses that have been used by everyone from the Ford Motor Company for its commercials to the Mormom Tabernacle Choir's recording of it.
AC: Do we know what his politics were? Was he a Commie?
PF: The answer is, probably not; no one knows for sure whether he formally ever joined up, but it really doesn't matter, because, for one, a lot of people were members of the Communist Party or sympathizers and friendly with Party members during the Thirties and Forties. People don't understand how politically left the country was in the Thirties, because the country wasn't working for a vast number of Americans; it was a mess. People were looking for other solutions, and many looked to the political left. A lot of people then were Communists or Socialists or variations of those, and the unions became very powerful because workers were having such a hard time in the Thirties and Forties.
AC: What were your major challenges making this film?
PF: One was just getting a grip on the vastness of the archive he left. Just getting your hands around all the songs, diaries, novels, short stories, etc., is pretty tough. I read a significant portion of it, not all of it. I don't think anyone has. Another more prosaic filmmaking challenge was that there's almost no footage of him. There was also the fact that filmmaking tells, in many ways, simple stories, and Guthrie's story is very, very complex. So paring down what to include was very hard. There were so many poignant, funny stories we could have included, but didn't. This film could easily have been twice as long.
AC: Why was there so little footage of Woody?
PF: He was very much under the radar for most of his life, especially in the early days. In 1937, when he first went to L.A. and got to be a radio star, people simply didn't have film or video cameras around. There are some photos, but he was basically pretty poor, as were the people he hung around. Probably they didn't have a lot of cameras. And certainly no one was going around to every radio studio in L.A. making films of everybody who wanted to be a cowboy radio star. (At this point in his career, Guthrie was really trying to break into showbiz as the cowboy radio guy, though he'd talk on the radio about the injustices he saw from his populist political viewpoint.)
AC: Guthrie's affair with Marjorie Mazia, the Martha Graham dancer, while she was still married to someone else, was pretty fascinating. She gets pregnant with Guthrie and then returns to her husband to have the baby. Only later does she get divorced and marry Guthrie.
PF: Her story is fantastic. And when she went back to her husband, there was no doubt that she was having Woody's baby everyone knew that. But theirs really is an amazing love story, very deep and very tumultuous; they fought a lot and ultimately divorced, but she stayed by him until the very end, even though she remarried. The two of them were really meant for each other. They were so different, but somehow they understood each other, motivated each other, and on some level made life hell for each other. They had three kids: Nora, Joady, and Arlo who's still around, plays constantly, and has a very large following. (He was not in the film because of scheduling problems.) The third kid, Joady, who keeps a very low profile, lives in California. None of these kids had the Huntington's gene. Marjorie started the Huntington's Disease Foundation.
AC: Is there any thought that his prolific creativity and output and some of his behavioral antics may have been attributable to his disease?
PF: An ongoing question is how much of his creativity was part of his disease. I think the guy lacked some filters that the rest of us have in terms of appropriate behavior, and maybe that made him more creative. Who knows?
AC: Who most epitomizes the Guthrie legacy?
PF: Dylan. When he came to New York City at 19, he absolutely modeled himself in every way after Woody Guthrie. His reason for coming to New York City was that he'd heard that Woody was sick, but that you could visit him, so he came to the city to sit at Guthrie's feet. There's a story, maybe apocryphal, that when Dylan appeared at Folk City, the seminal folk club, for the first time, he was wearing clothes that Woody had given him. Don't know whether it's true, but it's a great story. Another story was Woody's quote about Dylan that, "he can't write songs very well but he sure can sing." He got that backward, but he was sick at the time. My guess is that without Guthrie, we wouldn't know the Dylan we know today.
Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home
Peter Frumkin in attendance
Wednesday, May 10, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown