[APPLAUSE] RICHARD POLENBERG: The improvement in cognitive functioning was evident. I mean, you just couldn't help but notice. Well, by 1936, a year after that song was written, Woody was drifting away from Pampa, visiting places in Oklahoma and as far away as California.
On one of those trips to the coast, he composed a song based on the effort by the Los Angeles Police to blockade the city in order to keep out anyone who was jobless or indigent. Now, this is one of the truly most extraordinary episodes in the history of America, in the history of California.
Early in 1936, well-to-do folks in the city of Los Angeles feared an influx of poverty-stricken migrants. I mean, they were American citizens from Oklahoma, Kansas, whatever. But they didn't have any money. And the good citizens of Los Angeles didn't want them coming into town.
And so they got the police chief of Los Angeles, his name was James Davis, to, in effect, seal off Los Angeles from the rest of California and California from the rest of the country.
Davis sent 125 police officers to 16 crucial highway and railroad entry points around the state, many of them on the Arizona border, with orders to turn back indigent transients who could not prove that they were California residents. If you didn't live in California and you didn't have any money, you weren't going to be allowed to come into the state.
There's a conservative historian, Kevin Starr, a wonderful historian, written the history of the state of California in several volumes. And he speaks of, I'm quoting him, "the chilling spectacle of unprecedented police power." He said that, "These checkpoints in California made a scene more like the border checkpoints of fascist Europe than those of an American state."
The police just used extra constitutional powers of exclusion, detention, and preemptive arrests. And this system lasted from early February until mid-April 1936 when it collapsed, not only because the ACLU and other organizations protested against it but also because it was costly. And then it cost a lot of money to have those police officers watching those checkpoints around the clock.
But Woody Guthrie saw that in operation. And his song, which we're going to sing next, "You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi," is rooted in that particular episode in the history of California.
Some of my former students, who are now at the Cornell Law School here, and they'll be-- all of you, but they especially-- would be interested to know that it wasn't until 1941, five years after this, that the United States Supreme Court in a case called Edwards versus California decided, ruled unanimously, that a state cannot bar an indigent citizen from entering another state. So it's within my lifetime, and maybe some of yours too, that the Court finally made that ruling.
But it was still in effect when Woody Guthrie first got to California. He saw it in operation. And he heard this old, silly song that was being sung at the time called "Hang Out the Front Door Key," a song about--
(SINGING) Percy Wilson Gay left his wife one day. Then she'd always say, be home on time.
But he didn't get home on time. He asked her to hang out the front door key. And one day, he got home, and there was a sign that she had left and told him to leave out the front door key for her because she was out with some of her friends.
So Woody Guthrie used that song "Hang Out the Front Door Key" to write "If You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi--" do re mi, of course, being the phrase used at the time to refer to money. And as Woody Guthrie said, "It ain't so much on poetry, but it tells a lot of truth."
That was his verdict on the song. And it took an angry dig at the then governor, conservative governor, of California, Frank Merriam. So maybe I'll sing that, the line in it, which isn't usually sung but that Woody Guthrie originally composed that sort of placed it right during Governor Merriam's administration.
So this is "If You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi." And some of you-- it's kind of complicated to teach. But those of you who know it, know it.
And you're welcome to sing it or to sing any part of it at all, even just the last part of the chorus, "But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do re mi." But if you know more of it, by all means, sing more of it.
[MUSIC - "IF YOU AIN'T GOT THE DO RE MI"]
(SINGING) Lots of folks back East, they say, leaving home every day, beating the hot old dusty way to the California line. Across the desert sands they roll, getting out of that old dust bowl. Think they're going to a sugar bowl. Here's what they find.
And the police at the port of entry say, you're number 14,000 for today. If you ain't got the do re mi, folks, if you ain't got the do re mi, oh, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden. A paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do re mi.
You want to buy you a home or farm, that can't deal nobody harm, take your vacation by the mountains or sea. Don't swap your old cow for a car. Better stay right where you are. Better take this little tip from me.
Because Governor Merriam on the radio, one day, jumped up to the microphone, did say, if you ain't got the do re mi, boys, if you ain't got the do re mi, oh, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do re mi.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 3 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.