Woodrow Wilson Guthrie Tells It Like It Is
February 20, 2002
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie tells it like it is, this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.
Hello, I’m Steven Knoche Kite.
For many decades the life and legacy that is Woody Guthrie lay hidden under shrouds of controversy.
Some critics were of the opinion that Guthrie, like Steinbeck, presented a disparaging image of his subjects
and of Oklahomans in general and that his songs highlighted all that was wrong with America. Common people
of the day, however, found much optimism and hope in Woody’s compositions. Guthrie, a native of Okemah,
Oklahoma sang about what he saw, and his songs often carry with them a melancholy sadness, a reflection
of the people and subjects of the songs. He sang and spoke in simple uncomplicated phrases in a language
that everyone could understand. His words let others know that they weren't alone, that others like them
were experiencing hardship and struggle as well. In his own simple way Woody Guthrie made those around
him cry and laugh, and sometimes to just feel better about the situations in which they found themselves.
More often than not Guthrie’s work is simply a musical journal of American history. Guthrie traveled
from coast to coast numerous times writing and reporting with his guitar and singing what he viewed and
experienced. Often what Guthrie encountered during his travels wasn't good, he witnessed the Dust Bowl,
the exodus of thousands of southern farmers to the west and the oppression of migrant farm workers in
the California orchards. Guthrie as a wandering minstrel, as a member of the groundbreaking Almanac
singers and in various duets and partnerships, wrote, co-wrote, stole or wandered onto many songs that
today have become a part of our cultural landscape.
It was in this week of 1940 that one of Guthrie’s most well known songs made its debut. Scratching
on the back of a piece of scrap paper Guthrie penned the words to This Land is Your
Land. The song, Guthrie explained later, was meant to describe an America that could be, an America
in which people were truly free to go where they wanted, when they wanted. A response in part to the treatment
of many migrants who left Oklahoma looking for work only to find themselves banned from various regions
or states, the song was taken ironically, not as the critique that it was but instead as a celebration.
The song became a classroom hit, I remember singing it all through elementary school, and at one point
it was even a candidate to replace the Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem.
This land is your land, and Woody Guthrie said so this week in 1940.
The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of the Oklahoma State University
Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.