Pastures of Plenty: A Self-portrait

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie’s most durable creation was himself — the mythic character called ”Woody.” Conjured up in talking blues, dust-bowl ballads, and the tall tales he loved to tell, ”Woody” was upbeat and down-home, a ”rambling man” filled with faith in the gifts of the common man. Expressed most memorably in such songs as ”This Land Is Your Land,” the character is authentic, for Guthrie was, on one level, just what he pretended to be: an ”awkward Oklahoma boy.” But as Pastures of Plenty, a new anthology of mostly unpublished material, makes plain, ”Woody” was also a self-conscious political creation, a public persona as calculated as that of ”Bob Dylan” (the masterpiece of Guthrie’s greatest disciple, Robert Zimmerman).

Coedited by rock critic Dave Marsh and veteran manager Harold Leventhal, Pastures of Plenty contains a fascinating miscellany of Guthrie’s writings. The bulk of the material dates from the 1940s, after Guthrie had moved to New York City and settled inside the orbit of the Communist Party (though he was apparently never a member).

The mix of public and private works from this period — everything from personal jottings, doodles, and unmailed letters to old photos, forgotten liner notes, and some of the columns he wrote for the Daily Worker — reveals a striking discrepancy between the aw-shucks artlessness of the public Guthrie and the militancy of the private man. ”The biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life,” he writes in one of the most telling passages, ”was back in 1936 the day that I joined hands with the Communist Party.”

At the time, he was a 24-year-old sign painter and part-time country musician. Within a year, he had reinvented himself as a proletarian minstrel, writing and singing new songs for ”migratory workers, packers and all sorts of other country and city workers.”

Until he was disabled by Huntington’s chorea in the early 1950s, Guthrie could always count on income from playing union benefits and political rallies. But his debt to this community ran deeper still. For the artist revealed in these pages was sustained by an unshakable faith that a better world was coming — and that his special calling was to spread the glad news. ”These songs will echo,” he declares of his music, ”…till the world looks level…and there ain’t no rich men, and there ain’t no poor men, and every man on earth is at work and his family is living as human beings instead of like a nest of rats.” It may be difficult to share Guthrie’s fervent optimism today, but he was right about one thing: The transformation of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, awkward Okie, into ”Woody,” singing conscience of the common man, really was ”the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life” — the wellspring of his greatest work. B

Pastures of Plenty: A Self-portrait
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