Bound for Glory
Bound for Glory
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiography set in Oklahoma, Texas, California, New York, and on the open road from the 1910s to the 1940s; published in 1943.
Bound for Glory details the life of the wellknown folksinger Woody Guthrie. As an “Okie,” an Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugee, Guthrie spent a large portion of his life playing music and riding trains and boxcars back and forth across the country.
Woody Guthrie was born into an upper-class family in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912. Musically gifted, he experienced many hardships during his childhood, including an increasingly poverty-stricken household and the breakup of his family. During the Great Depression, Guthrie set out on his own for California. He spent time in the state’s migrant camps, composing songs and riding trains from one place to the next. A left-wing political activist, he eventually became an acclaimed folksinger. Bound for Glory details his experiences on the road to fame and also brings alive the historical realities of the era.
From the “Red Scare” to the Great Depression
Ushering in the 1920s was a “red scare” in America—a fear of a communist revolution in the country. This scare followed on the heels of the 1917 communist takeover of Russia and the 1919 founding of two American communist parties. Uniting into one party in 1921, the American communists remained small, but there was heated reaction to them from many Americans.
Although widespread fear of a communist revolution similar to Russia’s subsided somewhat in the 1920s, society’s antiradical stance remained strong. There was widespread opposition to the growth of labor unions in the nation, which were viewed at first as un-American collectives. Business leaders set out to crush the unions, and achieved some success. In 1921 they rid the nation’s meat-packing plants of labor unions, and in 1922 judges prohibited a strike in the railway industry. The labor movement flagged for a time, then revived. Membership grew, and the movement split into two divisions in 1935—the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the workers who would form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The latter faction proceeded to try unionizing industries whose employees had not yet organized, but from the shipping docks of the West to the textile mills of the East, employers fought back. Workers were beaten, gassed, and even murdered to prevent them from instituting union organizations in the companies where they worked.
At the same time, the 1920s brought a rising number of consumer products to the nation. Output in the automobile and construction industries soared, and electricity in homes became commonplace, bringing radio into the average household. America’s first radio station, KDKA of Pittsburgh, began broadcasting in 1920; by 1923 the United States boasted over three hundred stations. The radio stations, as well as record companies, began searching for talent to fill this new market. Meanwhile, the overall production of consumer items continued apace until the end of the 1920s, when economic collapse descended on the nation.
Beginning in 1929, a devastating downswing in business known as the ‘Great Depression left millions jobless, hungry, and homeless. Consumption flagged, businesses went bankrupt, and basic needs went unmet. Without food, people stood in breadlines for government handouts. The jobless rate climbed from 1.5 million in 1929 to 12.1 million in just three years, and more than a million homeless roamed the nation in search of work. There were feelings of anger, despair, and desperation. Lynch mobs reappeared during this era, hanging suspects without due process of the law. Their targets were usually blacks, as in the post-Civil War era when racial strife had also been inflamed by economic difficulties.
Introducing the “New Deal,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933 and offered the nation innovative programs to put the jobless to work and to reduce misery. Many responded positively. “Roosevelt is the only president we ever had,” said one worker, “that thought the Constitution belonged to the poor man too” (Bailyn, p. 739). But the Communist Party, which gained momentum at this time, disagreed. In its view, the New Deal was not radical enough. Party membership increased from 7,650 in 1930 to 75,000 in 1938. Though still small, the party influenced a crosssection of Americans beyond its hard-core members—mostly workers but also Woody Guthrie and other nonconformists of the troubled 1930s.
In Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie describes his life in several oil boom towns located in Oklahoma and Texas. Oil prices rose dramatically as the automobile industry expanded. This price increase spawned new exploratory searches for oil in Oklahoma and nearby states, which quickened growth in the area. From 1925 to 1931, the counties that would make up the future Dust Bowl region were vigorously developed.
Once oil was found, old communities would rapidly expand and new ones would suddenly appear in a manner similar to the gold rush areas of earlier times:
The discovery of a new pool of oil by an enterprising wildcatter would ignite a frenzy of excitement and a furious scramble to lease the most promising lands.… This rush of humanity would stimulate the frantic construction of hotels, cafes, pool halls, and other establishments designed to meet the needs of the workers.
(Franks, Lambert, and Tyson, p. 5)
Pipelines were constructed to transport the oil from these towns to larger metropolitan areas such as Denver, Colorado. Streets were paved, highways expanded, and water and sewer systems developed. Some communities even held festivals in order to celebrate the oil deposits that surrounded them.
Because of oil discoveries, many communities in Oklahoma and Texas actually experienced economic growth from 1929 to 1931, the preliminary years of the Great Depression. In general, however, when the oil deposits dried up, these thriving communities faded as quickly as they had grown. Men such as Guthrie’s father often lost as much money as they earned. After the boom, towns like Bound for Glory’s Okemah boarded up their cafés and hotels.
The Dust Bowl
Throughout the 1930s, the southern portion of the Great Plains suffered under severe weather patterns. Technically, the term “Dust Bowl”—first used by a reporter named Robert Geiger who wrote for a paper called The Evening Star—refers to particular counties in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. The phrase is associated with the severe drought, wind erosion, economic depression, and subsequent migration from that area during this time. Harvests failed year after year as farmers found their crops pummeled by hail, drought, freezing temperatures, floods, and even plagues of rabbits and grasshoppers.
One of the most famous sights of the Dust Bowl were “rollers,” or severe dust storms. Rollers were huge clouds of dust that blocked out the sun, making visibility impossible. These storms dumped several feet of dust onto farms and stripped the land of its topsoil. In 1933 the town of Goodwell, Oklahoma, recorded 70 days of severe dust storms while Texhoma, Oklahoma, reported 139. Some of the storms destroyed houses, property, and lives as well as crops. The air grew so heavy with dust that many people died of dust pneumonia. During a dust storm in Pampa, Texas—fearing, it seems, for his life— Guthrie wrote the song “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” These severe dust storms, along with economic factors, prompted many people living in the Dust Bowl area, as well as in Arkansas and Missouri, to leave their homes and migrate west in search of a better life. Whole families moved together, becoming known as “Dust Bowl refugees,” or, more negatively, “Okies.”
Riding the rails
In 1933 the Great Depression reached its severest depths. A portion of the one million homeless had by this time become a transient group that moved from place to place in search of work. Guthrie spent years living among these transients, absorbing the particulars of the lifestyle. Some of these people viewed themselves as part of a long hobo tradition that had its roots in the previous century:
They developed an elaborate mythology and customs to make it more palatable. They took names like Denver Fly and Mobile Mac, Poison Face Time and Dick the Stabber. They told long, improbable tales around the campfire … about legendary hoboes, good towns and bad.... They made up songs about life on the bum: some dripping with overripe romanticism, but others with a rough honesty that cut through the myths.
(Klein, p. 44)
As described in Guthrie’s autobiography, the towns through which these transients passed were often hostile. The average community saw them as a threat and took measures to prevent the homeless from settling in the area. Many of them ate at soup kitchens or, like Guthrie himself, were forced to beg for food. They lived in roadside camps called “hobo jungles” or on skid row, a district of cheap hotels, saloons, and employment agencies frequented by society’s underclass.
Moving from one place to another was an essential part of transient life. Some people traveled in order to find work, while others simply considered rootlessness an integral part of the hobo tradition. Many of the transients “flipped” trains, the term used for hopping on and off the cars without paying.
Transients most often rode on freight cars and placed themselves almost anywhere on board the railway vehicles. They rode inside cars, underneath them, on top, in the front, and on the sides. Of course, flipping trains was quite dangerous and people often died in the process. Boxcar doors opened without warning, sometimes hurling inhabitants out the door. Cargo shifted, crushing those beneath it. The most courageous transients rode the rods, propping themselves along the four-foot bar underneath the train, inches away from the tracks.
Folksingers and songs of the 1930s and 1940s
Folksingers like Guthrie became very popular during the 1930s and ’40s for a number of reasons. Both the radio and phonograph industries had expanded during the 1920s, and by the close of the decade they had begun to promote Texas cowboy songs, hobo and train tunes, and country blues to a growing nation of music consumers.
As the Okies migrated into California during the 1930s, their musical interests encouraged this turn in the entertainment industry. Music took a prominent place in the social activities of the migrants. Guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, and banjos were a common form of entertainment at their campsites.
Many Okies sought employment as musicians when their search for other types of work in California failed. In his autobiography Guthrie does not mention that his cousin Jack was a talented musician in California. Jack, whose stage name was “Oklahoma,” concocted a radio program called “The Oklahoma and Woody Show,” thus providing Guthrie with one of his first encounters with the entertainment industry. His popularity grew, and later in the decade he received more than a thousand fan letters a month as the sole “hillbilly” singer on the Los Angeles radio station KFVD. Many of these letters were from Okies themselves, who enjoyed Guthrie’s music, anecdotes, and cornpone philosophy. Despite the fact that he was well read, Guthrie learned to cultivate an image as a naive, poor, rural person to appeal to his audience. This image of him permeates Bound for Glory.
Guthrie, however, did not gain his greatest fame in California. He left the state at the end of the decade for New York, where the folksong movement was extremely politically oriented. Urban left-wing political activists viewed folksingers and their songs as a means of spreading ideology. The communist and other leftist movements, which had gained popularity during the 1930s, actively sought out singers like Guthrie to spread their ideals to the middle class. Folksongs were sung at political rallies and union meetings. Bound for Glory does not detail Guthrie’s involvement in left-wing politics, but he sang at communist fund-raisers and even had his own editorial column for six months in a communist paper, The People’s World. The left-wing activists hailed Guthrie as an Okie troubadour who represented a class of oppressed people. He went on to spend the early 1940s writing protest songs with Pete Seeger and the Almanacs, a musical group dedicated to raising social consciousness through song.
The songs that Guthrie wrote or cowrote were often topical and dealt with issues of immediate importance. “This Land Is Your Land,” one of Guthrie’s most well-known tunes, for example, parodies Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s version declares that all people own the land, not just the rich and powerful. “A sign was painted said: Private Property,” says one verse of the song. “But … God Blessed America for me” (Guthrie in Klein, p. 141).
Guthrie himself actively promoted the perceived relationship of folksong to political ideology when he notes, “As long as we’ve got wrecks, disasters, cyclones, hurricanes, explosions, lynchings, trade union troubles, high prices and low pay, as long as we’ve got cops in uniform battling with union pickets on strike, folksongs and folk ballads are on their way in” (Guthrie in Botkin, p. 60).
Bound for Glory is the autobiographical account of Woody Guthrie’s life, beginning with his boyhood and ending during the war years. The autobiography starts in the 1940s on a train “bound for glory,” then flashes back to Guthrie’s beginnings. Sprinkled through the work are incidents that bring up social issues of the day, such as the prejudice expressed by the racial epithet “nigger.”
Guthrie chronicles his boyhood in Okemah, Oklahoma, a small farming community of about a thousand inhabitants. As a toddler he lives in a big seven-room house. His father works hard to provide the family with material goods and a comfortable lifestyle, and Guthrie spends his own days the same way other boys do. He gets into many fights, even participating in gang warfare. As he grows up, he develops a reputation as a tough kid. People place bets on his fighting abilities, encouraging the winner of any fist fight to take on Guthrie. “Betcha cain’t lick ol’ Woody!” they often taunt (Guthrie, Bound for Glory, p. 136).
A series of hardships strikes the Guthrie family during the singer’s childhood. Their beautiful, seven-room house mysteriously burns to the ground. The family moves into a smaller, stone house, but the adjustment adversely affects the health of Guthrie’s mother, who is afflicted with Huntington’s chorea, a disease of the central nervous system. His father meanwhile encounters financial difficulties, and then a cyclone hits town and rips the roof off the new house. The Guthries move across town.
Okemah grows into an oil boom town. The population swells and Guthrie’s father once again makes a great deal of money by buying and selling land. Dance halls, saloons, and gambling houses spring up overnight. Life, it seems, has become good again.
Yet trouble strikes once again. According to Bound for Glory, their old kerosene stove blows up while his sister, Clara, irons on it. The flames burn her so badly that she dies, after which Guthrie’s mother deteriorates further.
The Guthries leave town for a while but cannot find work. They return to Okemah exactly one year later, moving into a dirty house in the shabby part of town. Okemah is no longer a boom community. Many people have left, stores are boarded up, and both work and money appear to be scarce.
Fortunately, Guthrie’s father and his brother, Roy, find good jobs selling auto licenses. Too young for a real job, Guthrie decides to plant a garden and sell the produce. One day, as he and his mother sit outside near the house, they notice smoke drifting out from between the wooden chinks. As his father enters the house to find the source of the smoke, the oil stove explodes. Severely burnt, Guthrie’s father goes to western Texas to recuperate. His mother is sent to an insane asylum, and he and his brother are left to fend for themselves.
Guthrie chooses to live in the ramshackle gang fort that he helped build with his friends. He earns money by scrounging through garbage heaps, finding bits and pieces of scraps to sell to the junk man. He also works at odd jobs such as washing spittoons and shining shoes.
Years later, Guthrie’s father writes from Texas that his burns have finally healed and he is again working in the land business. Seventeen years old at the time, Guthrie joins him in Pampa, Texas. Pampa is another oil boom town, so work proves easy to find. Here Guthrie holds a variety of odd jobs; one of them is selling alcohol illegally.
Guthrie, now in his twenties, receives a letter from his aunt Laura in Sonora, California, encouraging him to leave dusty Texas and move to her state. Following her advice, he leaves for California, becoming adept at riding railroad trains without paying, evading the police, and begging for food.
During his train rides, Guthrie meets many homeless people. Most are seeking jobs, riding the train to a place that might offer them employment. They fight against one another but also share food, drink, and cigarettes. They swap stories and evade the police and train guards who try to keep the homeless from riding for free. Sometimes sneaking inside boxcars, sometimes on top, they endure choking dust, freezing rain, and unbearable wind or heat.
After many adventures, Guthrie reaches his aunt’s house. Dirty and ragged, he knocks on her door. A butler answers, and suddenly Guthrie realizes he does not want the easy, soft, life of the rich. So Guthrie excuses himself and again takes to the open road.
Guthrie rides the rails with other men, playing songs on his guitar and looking for work. He arrives at migrant labor camps that are filled with people waiting for jobs.
Composing songs for the people he encounters, Guthrie sometimes earns money by playing in the saloons.
I’d play my guitar and sing the longest, oldest, and saddest songs and ballads I knew; I’d nod and smile and say thank you every time somebody dropped a penny or a nickel into my cigar box.
(Bound for Glory, p. 327)
He travels and plays his guitar through forty-two states, living on the tips he made. Guthrie becomes famous during his travels; he performs on the radio and makes records. The autobiography documents how, despite his fame, he chooses to remain poor and to continue the way of life that inspires his songs. In one of the final chapters, he describes a fateful decision. Guthrie has been invited to audition for a job at the Rainbow Room in New York City. The bosses become excited when they hear him sing, and start telling him what he will have to wear and how he must sing in order to please their audience. Guthrie walks out. Instead of taking the job, he finds a friend, jumps on a barge, and leaves. A short while later the book ends where it began, on a train bound for glory.
Many Okies ended up picking fruit as migrant workers in California. Historically, migrant workers in this state were isolated from the local community and subject to severe discrimination. In 1935 they were excluded from the retirement and unemployment protection of a newly established Social Security system set up as part of FDR’s New Deal. In 1938 they were excluded from the wage and hours regulations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Such discrimination often left the migrant workers poverty-stricken. The Okie migrants resided in huge, unsanitary squatter or labor camps, with whole families living in cars, trucks, or shacks. Sometimes they were stranded in the orchards without work, or even enough money for gas to leave the area. Many quickly found themselves in debt to a farm’s store, which charged exorbitant prices for food and supplies. Guthrie describes the living conditions of such camps in Bound for Glory:
The camp was bigger than the town itself. People had dragged old car fenders up from the dumps, wired them from the limbs of oak trees a few feet off of the ground and this was a roof for some of them. Others had taken old canvas sacks or wagon sheets, stretched the canvas over little limbs cut so the fores braced each other, and that was a house for those folks.... Lots of people, families mostly, had some bedclothes with them, and I could see the old stinky, gummy quilts and blankets hung up like tents,… there was scatterings of cardboard shacks, where the people had lugged cartons, cases, packing boxes out from town and tacked them into a house.
(Bound for Glory, p. 329)
A MELODY FOR THE OKIES, “DO RE MI”
Many of Guthrie’s songs chronicle the experience of the Okies in California and the state’s negative reception of the newcomers.
Now, the police at the port of entry say
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”
Oh if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks,
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
Why, you’d better go back to beautiful Texas,
Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
(Guthrie quoted in Gregory, p. 232)
The injustices that gave rise to such conditions prompted Guthrie and other radicals to make an attempt at politically organizing farm laborers to fight for their basic rights. Yet the Okies were only partially willing to listen. While they came from a strongly Democratic background and responded to appeals on behalf of the common man, many were less willing to agree with the radicals’ ideas about racial equality. The Okies, moreover, distrusted the radicals and therefore proved difficult to organize into a cohesive, leftist political entity.
Bound for Glory is Guthrie’s account of his life, based loosely on his own experiences as a child, folksinger, migrant worker, and transient. More concerned with political and social issues of his day than with other matters, he omitted some personal details and fabricated others. According to biographer Joe Klein, for example, Clara did not die because the old kerosene stove exploded while she ironed on it, as Bound for Glory claims. In fact, writes the biographer, in a fit of rage because her mother kept her home from school to do housework, Clara set her dress on fire, intending to burn it only slightly to frighten her mother. To Clara’s surprise, the dress exploded into flames that consumed much of her skin, without which she soon froze to death.
Guthrie was commissioned to write his autobiography and paid an advance of $500 for it by E. P. Dutton, a publishing house. Originally entitled Boomchasers, Bound for Glory left out so many critical parts of Guthrie’s life that some considered it a piece of fiction. Other readers recognized the book’s failures but responded positively to its humor and style despite its defects. Critical reception to Bound for Glory was generally favorable. Reviewers often mentioned in passing aspects of the book regarded as flaws— the fabrications, attempts to use dialect, and clumsy illustrations—but generally commended the writing. One critic for the New Yorker even predicted:
Some day people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession, like Yellowstone or Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world.
(Fadiman in Klein, p. 259)
The book, however, caused Guthrie some personal trouble. One chapter graphically describes his cousin, Warren Tanner, sadistically killing kittens. Upset by the portrayal, Tanner sued Guthrie for libel.
Guthrie’s romantic life is practically nonexistent in his autobiography. It says that he lived in Pampa in a small shack. In reality, he shared that shack with his wife Mary and their children. As he traveled, he often left Mary behind to care for the kids, and eventually they split permanently. He later married a woman named Marjorie Greenblatt, who became instrumental in helping him edit his autobiography.
Guthrie only vaguely hints at his political activities and the relationship of his songs to political protest. From the 1920s to the 1940s, left-wing political ideology was a strong force in the United States. Communist activists openly sought folksingers as representatives of “the people,” and Guthrie fit this bill. He, in fact, entered into a long-term relationship with left-wing politics and the Communist Party, whose ideas also appealed to other musicians of his day.
Bailyn, Bernard, et al., eds. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1985.
Botkin, Benjamin A. “The Folklore Scene.” New York Folklore Quarterly 22, no. 1, pp. 59-61.
Franks, Kenny, Paul Lambert, and Carl Tyson. Early Oklahoma Oil. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1981.
Gregory, James N. American Exodus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. 1943. Reprint, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968.
Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Reuss, Richard. “American Folklore and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1971.
Wormser, Richard. Hoboes: Wandering in America, 1870-1940. New York: Walker, 1994.