Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd

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Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie wrote the "Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" in March of 1939. Guthrie, best known for singing and composing songs about the plight of people dislocated from their homes by poverty and the Dust Bowl, wrote a series of ballads about outlaws, celebrating them as populist heroes, poor people who preyed on the rich. He composed songs about the Dalton gang, the brazen female outlaw Belle Starr, and most famously, Charles Arthur Floyd, a bank robber and killer known as Pretty Boy Floyd.

Born in Bartow County, Georgia, in 1904, Floyd began his life of crime in the 1920s as a bootlegger and petty gambler, but his criminal activities had escalated to armed robbery and murder by the 1930s. During the Great Depression, poor individuals frequently lost their homes and property to banks, and criminals like Pretty Boy Floyd, who robbed the banks that foreclosed on their homes and farms, became popular figures of the era. Even before Guthrie immortalized Floyd in song, he was already known as "the Sagebush Robin Hood."

When Guthrie first composed the "Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd," the song was intended to mock the government, banks, and wealthy people. Guthrie's Pretty Boy was transformed into a heroic figure, a victim of circumstance who killed a deputy sheriff in a fair fight, and then had to seek refuge in the backwoods and live as an outcast because "every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name." Although the police considered Pretty Boy Floyd to be a criminal, he was a hero to the poor farmers, who gave him food and shelter and, in return for their hospitality, often discovered, according to the song, that their mortgage had been paid off or a thousand-dollar bill had been left on the dinner table.

Guthrie's song describes a hero who, like an American Robin Hood, sent a truckload of groceries to provide Christmas dinner for all the families on relief in Oklahoma City. The last lines of the song made Guthrie's message clear: "And as through your life you travel/Yes, as through your life you roam/You won't never see an outlaw/Drive a family from their home." Songs such as the "Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" helped victims of the Great Depression vocalize their anger against banks, while reinforcing growing class tensions. In a time of abject poverty, this song offered hope, as well as a cathartic release of indignation.



Guthrie, Woody. Dust Bowl Ballads (sound recording). 1940.

Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. 1981.

Wallis, Michael. Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of CharlesArthur Floyd. 1992.

Mary L. Nash