- Woody Guthrie, L.A., 1937–1941 eds. by Darryl Holter and William Deverell
“I seem to have been born a shade pink, and didn’t have to read many books to be a proletariat.”
“I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I’ve been in the red all my life.”—Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Many of us in labor studies knew Darryl Holter for his work in the 1980s as a labor scholar, educator, and organizer in Wisconsin. In 1991, the UCLA Labor Center offered him a job, and he taught labor and industrial relations there until his life took a different turn when his father-in-law, who owned several struggling auto dealerships in downtown Los Angeles, came down with terminal cancer. At a time of recession in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King beating and riots, with four hundred jobs at stake, Darryl took over the business and helped to build a coalition to revitalize the downtown. Today, the dealerships employ nearly one thousand, and downtown is booming. After his many previous years of protest singing on picket lines, he also rejuvenated his lifelong passion as a singer-songwriter.
Holter produced a CD of his own songs. For a Labor and Working-Class History Association / Organization of American Historians panel in Washington, DC, we linked his protest song, “Living on the Edge,” with searing photos of L.A. homelessness and poverty by labor’s indefatigable photojournalist David Bacon. A bit later, after a stint doing research in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City, Holter organized an academic conference and concert in L.A. to commemorate the 2012 centennial of Guthrie’s birth. Holter and University of Southern California historian Bill Deverell have now edited a book of essays from that conference on Guthrie’s formative years in L.A., 1937 to 1941.
This is a sumptuous book filled with photos of Guthrie and reproductions of his cartoon art from this period, with well-written essays that offer a refreshing and important reading of Guthrie’s evolution as a political and folk musician. Fleeing the dust storms in his native Oklahoma and the Great Depression in Pampa, Texas, “the Dust Bowl vagabond” hoboed his way to “the Garden of Eden” of California. Guthrie came of age surviving by his wits, his humor, his music, and by linking up with the radical labor and antifascist and antiracist movements of that era.
Holter’s first essay offers a bracing account of how Guthrie’s early experiences shaped a lifetime of music and writing that would inspire Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and generations of singer-songwriters. Playing in bars and living in the flophouses of a desolate and poverty-stricken downtown L.A., Guthrie eked out a threadbare existence while assembling songs, yarns, commentary, and writing that became his “radio songs” [End Page 88] on radio station KFVD, which covered more than a thousand miles and reached tens of thousands of transplants to the West. Meeting people in the migrant labor camps jolted Guthrie’s outrage at injustice and helped to transform him into one of the great interpreters of the American worker’s experience. Holter documents Guthrie’s turn to the left as a musician and a folklorist as he came to identify with working-class people, including African Americans and Latino workers.
Dan Cady and Douglas Flamming, “Ramblin’ in Black and White,” document how Woody flipped from unconscious white supremacy to conscious antiracism. His hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, was the site of a horrific lynching of a black mother and her thirteen-year-old son from a bridge, an event that his father watched and in which he might have participated. White supremacy and racist language engulfed Woody’s childhood in the Jim Crow era. His radicalization came in part from rejecting that legacy, beginning in L.A. in his work with Latino farmworkers and with his crucial linkage to the Communist Party’s antiracist Popular Front.
By 1940, Guthrie was in New York City, writing the chilling “Slipknot,” a song...