BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was the spring of 1940, and Woody Guthrie was
becoming a star — or as close to one as he'd ever let
In May of that year, Woody stood alone in Victor
Records' New Jersey recording studio and sang out some of
his best — and now best-known — songs: "Dust Bowl Refugee," "I
Ain't Got No Home," "Do Re Mi," "So Long, It's Been Good to
Know You" and many more. He was paid $300 for the session,
more money than he'd ever thought a man could be paid for
singing "dusty ol' songs."
Immediately after the session, Woody wrote to his
younger sister Mary Jo back in Oklahoma about his recent
good fortune in New York City. "I just bought a new
Plymouth, and it really splits the breeze," he said. Then he
added, "I'm coming to Oklahoma as soon as I get a check from
Months later, he began that journey back home, and his
traveling companion was fellow folksinger Pete Seeger. It
would be a pivotal journey for Woody's political
motivations and a crystallizing moment in his personal
According to Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, the two
young folkies headed south and rolled through the
Appalachian Mountains "carrying on a running conversation
about music and politics."
Along the trip, they stopped briefly in Tennessee to
visit the Highlander Folk School, a training center for
labor organizers. The owners, Myles and Zilphia Horton,
were focusing on the use of music as an organizing tool.
From then on, Woody became preoccupied with writing union
songs, and later in the trip he would pen his ultimate
They traveled through Arkansas into Oklahoma, stopping
in Konawa to visit Woody's family. It was a tense reunion.
The Guthries had been split up years before after Woody's
mother Nora went to the mental hospital in Norman. After
that, Mary Jo was sent to a relative's in Pampa, Texas, and
Woody's father, Charley, moved to Oklahoma City. Woody and
his older brother were left behind in Okemah to fend for
themselves. Woody's inherent restlessness got the better of
him, and he left soon after high school.
Charley was in Konawa during this visit, but as Klein
wrote, there was "a real tension between them, and the visit
lasted only a few hours."
They pressed on to Oklahoma City, where they spent a
night with local Communist Party organizers Bob and Ina
Wood. The Woods put Guthrie and Seeger to work, singing for
the poor people in the Hooverville shantytown on the banks
of the Canadian River. It was during this stay that Woody
wrote one of his most recognizable songs, "Union Maid."
Later in his life, Woody wrote that the song was
inspired by the story of a southern Tenant Farmers' Union
organizer who was badly beaten, but in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World Seeger recalled the more direct
inspiration for the song.
"We were in the (Woods') office, and Ina said, ‘Woody,
all these union songs are about brothers this and brothers
that. How about writing songs about union women?' " Seeger
said. "Well, it was true. The (union) meeting that night
might have been broken up had it not been for the women and
children singing songs and keeping it peaceful."
"Union Maid" — with its chorus, "Oh you can't scare me, I'm
stickin' to the union" — was written that night as a parody
of an older song called "Redwing." At first, Seeger thought
Woody's song was silly, but he said its simplicity and
directness soon won him over.
"His words now are much better than the ‘Redwing' words,"
he said. "Who would think that ‘stickin' to the' would be
such a fun line to sing?"
The rest of the trip was personally difficult. Woody and
Pete continued to Pampa, where Woody had left behind his
first wife and children. That reunion also was tense.
Seeger didn't stay long, opting to continue travelling west
after a few days. Woody left soon after that, leaving his
wife the $300. He headed back through Oklahoma City and
picked up Bob Wood, taking him back to New York City for a
huge Communist Party convention at Madison Square Garden.
When the convention was done, Woody gave Wood the
Plymouth so he could get home. It was the official car of
the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.