RICHARD POLENBERG: So Woody Guthrie returned to Los Angeles later in 1938 with a radical outlook quite different from the one he'd had in Texas just two or three years before. And so it wasn't unusual that he moved into the orbit of the Communist Party. It's unlikely he was ever a member-- as the phrase went-- a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Because as one historian put it, he was too undisciplined in his personal life to belong to any organized party.
But he surely subscribed to the outlook of the Communist Party. At this time, the Communist Party was in so-called popular front period. That is, it rejected the idea of a revolution in the United States. It supported Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. It backed trade union development. It fought for the rights of African-Americans. And the party membership increased to somewhere close to 100,000 in the late 1930s.
So Woody met a dedicated party member, Ed Robin, who got him more involved in the movement and became a good friend of his. By May 1939, Woody was what was called a fellow traveler. He was writing a column for the Communist Party newspaper, The People's Daily World. It was called Woody Sez. It's spelled S-E-Z.
And his column was usually four or five paragraphs long. He illustrated it with his drawings. He'd write over 170 of these columns over a period of about a year or so, finally ending in January 1940. And he included-- I'll read you one of the lines just to give you a sense of what he was writing. I mean, it was a way of taking Marxism, dialectical materialism, and bringing it down to earth. This is what he wrote. "You might say that Wall Street is the street that keeps you off easy street. So that's Woody Guthrie's way of presenting a radical point of view.
Well, during this period in the spring and summer of 1939 while singing for communist audiences on the coast, he wrote two of his best known and certainly most radical songs. The first could not have been better designed to outrage establishment types because it was based on an updated version of the Robin Hood legend, the legend of the outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. And this was the song Woody Guthrie wrote about Pretty Boy Floyd.
Be nice to give a whole lecture about Pretty Boy Floyd-- he was an interesting fellow-- but I wont. But his real name was Charles Arthur Floyd. He was born in Georgia in 1934, and the family later moved to Oklahoma. He worked in the cotton fields as a youngster.
But in 1925 when he was 21 years old, he was arrested for highway robbery. Already, he was already married-- he had a child. And he was sentenced to five years in the Jefferson, Missouri penitentiary. He was released in 1929, but was soon arrested for vagrancy and bank robbery.
And in December 1930, while on his way to prison in a train, he broke loose, jumped out a window, and made his getaway. For nearly four years, Pretty Boy Floyd remained at large, robbing banks in Ohio, Missouri, and naturally in Oklahoma. He even hit one bank just a few miles away from Woody's hometown of Okemah.
He was finally tracked down by the FBI and shot to death in October 1934 when he was 30 years of age. He had the largest funeral in the history of the state of Oklahoma up to that point. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people showed up for his funeral.
The most famous element of Woody's song are based on facts, but on an exaggerated version of the facts. Pretty Boy, in fact, had a wife, but she had divorced him when he was jailed and had gotten remarried. When he got out of jail, she left her husband and they got back together again. It was the way it went.
He did kill a man. I mean, he killed many men, but not because the man was a deputy who insulted his wife. That's what the song says, but that's not what actually happened. Now when he killed the deputy, he didn't use a log chain, he used the weapon of choice in Oklahoma in the early 1930s-- a Tommy Gun.
He did also stop at homes, would have dinner, and he would leave money for families, although he never left $1,000 bill that the song talks about. He certainly was blamed for a number of murders that he didn't commit. But it couldn't be said, I think, that every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name.
But this song has a certain kind of truth because the song makes Pretty Boy Floyd out to be a friend of the poor. That's what Woody Guthrie wanted to do. And there were interviews that Pretty Boy Floyd actually conducted and excerpts published and biographies of him.
And here's what the real Pretty Boy Floyd said, "I have rob no one but the moneyed men." Or in a famous interview he gave in 1932-- "it was all bonded money, and no one ever lost anything except the big boys." And so that's the basis for Woody Guthrie's writing Pretty Boy Floyd. I have to get the banjo for this.
[MUSIC - WOODIE GUTHRIE, "PRETTY BOY FLOYD"]
(SINGING) If you'll gather round me children, a story I will tell about Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw. Oklahoma knew him well. It was in the town of Shawnee on a Saturday afternoon, his wife beside him in his wagon as into town they rode.
There a deputy sheriff approached him in a manner rather rude, speaking vulgar words of anger. And his wife, she overheard. Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain, and the deputy grabbed his gun. In the fight that followed, he laid that deputy that down.
Then he took to the trees and timber to live a life of shame. Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name. But a many starving farmer that same old story told, how the outlaw paid their mortgage and saved their little homes.
Others tell you about a stranger that come to beg a meal. Underneath his napkin, left a thousand dollar bill.
It was on Christmas Day, there was a whole car load of groceries come with a note to say-- well, you say I'm an outlaw, you say I'm a thief. But here's a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.
Yes, as through this world I've wandered, seen lots of funny men. Some will rob with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. As through your life you travel, as through your life you roam, you won't never see an outlaw drive a family from its home.
RICHARD POLENBERG: Thank you, thank you.
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Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 5 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.