New Woody Guthrie Songs Speak Poorly of 1930s Los Angeles
Photographer unknown circa 1945 courtesy of Woody Guthrie Archives
*Little Known Fact: Woody Guthrie Was a Big Ol' Racist
*Woody Guthrie in Los Angeles: A more vivid picture of the folk singer emerges via newly released songs from his time here
Our music feature this week focuses on the oldest known Woody Guthrie recordings, which were found in Los Angeles and just released; they provide great insight about the young songwriter during his time here in the late 1930s. The combination of shmaltzy cowboy ballads and political lyrics show him to be in transition, heading away from a career in radio toward the populist voice he's remembered for today.
Two of the most interesting songs from those discovered early recordings -- "Big City Ways" and "Skid Row Serenade" -- provide particular insight into Guthrie's development in Los Angeles. The latter, of course, was named for Skid Row here; you can hear the songs and check out our breakdown of them below.
Hear "Big City Ways" and "Skid Row Serenade"
Peter La Chapelle The oldest known Guthrie recordings, on Presto disc
"Big City Ways"
After the spoken-word intro to this track, notice Guthrie's exaggerated country drawl. Professor and researcher Peter La Chapelle -- who found the recordings -- argues: "Guthrie...equated being a hillbilly with a sense of a pride, depicting hillbillies -- and by extension migrants -- as an unpretentious community-oriented people who revered family and lent a hand to the less fortunate."
The song opens with the line:
Brother John moved into town, he rented him a flat and settled down... he's getting them big city ways. Brought his wife and kids along but fifteen dollars didn't last long
Guthrie speaks of the tens of thousands of "Okies" who had picked up and moved to Los Angeles as a result of the dust bowl. But he didn't aim to glorify them so much as sympathize with -- and describe -- them.
The finance company right next door, got his paycheck and then some more...sister married a gigolo honey, brothers paying alimony... getting them big city ways
Guthrie paints Los Angeles as a corrupting influence on honest people, employing a system that didn't allow country people to succeed. The L.A. Times Sunday Magazine referred to the new residents as "migrant hordes" and "career men in relief" in 1939, the same year Guthrie wrote the song. Its title can be interrupted two ways: as an ironic comment on the image of Los Angeles many had before coming here, or a condemnation of the realities they encountered upon arrival. Perhaps both.
Below: "Skid Row Serenade"