Woody ran, too, but he wasn't a dust-bowl refugee, not technically. He went West to become a cowboy singer. He got a radio show on KFVD radio in LA — his business card read, "WOODY, the dustiest of th' DUSTBOWLERS" — and he met some socialists who taught him to politicize what he'd seen in Okemah and Pampa. He later told the musicologist Alan Lomax that if anybody had told him about the conditions in those camps, he never would have believed it. He became a sort of journalist, reporting from California's "Hoovervilles," makeshift camps of homeless, unemployed migrants. His medium was songs. "Singing lifts the mind above the usual train of thinking," he said.

His songs were the stories of real people he met, full of particular details: "I've been hittin' some hard harvestin', I thought you knowed/North Dakota to Kansas City, way down the road/Cuttin' that wheat, stackin' that hay, and I'm tryin' to make about a dollar a day/And I've been havin' some hard travelin', Lord."

Did the voiceless refugees accept Woody as their voice? Apparently so: The songs were about them, not about him, not directly. There's a pair of archival photos in the traveling exhibit of him performing in a work camp. His back is to the camera; the faces looking up at him acknowledge that yes, he's speaking to, and for, them.

Woody Guthrie in New York City, ca. 1943.
hotograph by Al Aumuller. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives.
Woody Guthrie in New York City, ca. 1943.

Does he still speak for us now? The income disparity between the rich and poor is greater today than it was during the Great Depression. The unemployment rate is lower, the number of foreclosures is less, but people are more affected by the loss of their investments. There haven't been any dust storms recently, but there are still jolly bankers. ("When your car you're losin', and sadly you're cruisin'... I'll come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes.") And what would he do? Would he blog? Would he Tweet? Would he have his own YouTube channel? Would he go on eternal tour like his disciple Bob Dylan?

Will Kaufman, who spoke at the Tulsa conference, probably has a better guess than most: His book Woody Guthrie, American Radical came out last year. "Woody would be doing exactly what he did," Kaufman said. "He wouldn't have to change a word of his songs."

« Previous Page