Excerpted from a chapter of a work in progress by Stephen Edington titled Bring Your Own God--The Spirituality of Woody Guthrie. It is an examination of some of the religious and spiritual themes in the writings and songs of Woody Guthrie.
Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land,
A hard working man and brave…
From Jesus Christ by Woody Guthrie
In the summer of 1941 while spending time in Portland, Oregon writing songs for the Bonneville Power Authority, the best known of which would be "Roll On Columbia," Woody wrote a letter to Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays about his experiences with some of the farm workers there. By now his reputation was such that the name Woody Guthrie had some currency to it. This is a portion of Woody's letter:
"I have visited the Oakie camps a time or two since I've been out here and they put me on their programs and the crowds were almost too big for you to believe…I made it my business to go to a lot of the tents and shacks…and hear them all sing, the little sisters, brothers, yodelers, ma and pa in the old yaller light of a coal oil lamp…And I make a little speech in each tent and I said, 'You folks are the best in the West. Why don't you take some time out and write up some songs about who you are, where you come from, what you was a lookin for, and the things you want to do.'
"Every one of them would lean and look towards me and keep so still and such a solemn look on their faces, there in those little old greasy hovels that would bring the rising sun to tears. In a few minutes some young and dreaming member of the family would break down and say, I been a thinkin about that ever since I commenced a singin. And then the whole bunch would enter into a deeper religious conversation and decide that was right. On more than one night, on more than one day, I've heard my Oakie friends ask me, 'Say Mister, you don't happen to be Mister Jesus do you? Come back?'" (1)
It would have been easy enough for Woody Guthrie to have shrugged off, or laughed off, the idea that he was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; and while there's no evidence at all that he ever saw himself as such, it is clear from the overall tone of this letter that the experiences he describes in it affected him deeply. The question "You don't happen to be Mister Jesus, do you?" touched Woody enough for him mention it in a letter to three of his close friends. Guthrie had a mystical connection with the dispossessed persons of his day; so much so that some of them, as this letter indicates, actually connected him with the accounts of the life of Jesus.
Jesus lived his life with, and took his teachings to, the down and outers of first century Palestine; even as Woody Guthrie did the same with the throw-aways of this time and place. One can only speculate what might have been in Woody's mind and heart as he walked away from a gathering of his fellow "Oakies" who, in their desperate circumstances, had earnestly asked him if he were "Mister Jesus."
The timing of this letter evokes a certain parallel between the life of Woody Guthrie and a story from the Jesus Narratives of the Christian Gospels. Several months prior to the summer of 1941 Woody had deliberately turned his back on commercial success. CBS Radio in New York City put him on the air with a show called Pipe Smoking Time, sponsored by Model Tobacco. He was to open each show with a singing commercial that went, in part:
Load up your pipe and take your life easy
With Model Tobacco to light up your way
We're glad to be with you today.
The gig paid Woody $180.00 a week; about $2500.00 a week in 2010 dollars. Practically swimming in money, he sent for his first wife, Mary Jennings Guthrie, and their three children to come to New York from Pampa, Texas. He'd come a long way from scrounging on the streets of Okemah and Pampa. But Woody apparently was unable to live on Easy Street for very long. On the first week of January of 1941 he told Mary that they and the kids were leaving New York City and hitting the road again--going back to the Los Angeles area to try to reconnect with old friends there. The Pipe Smoking Time people wanted to package Woody as an authentic country-style American everyman. But "packaged authenticity" didn't quite work for Woody Guthrie. In addition, he was not willing to be, in effect, a prop to sell a product. He was out the door barely before he made it in.
The Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke tell of the temptation of Jesus by the Devil following his baptism. One of these temptations has Satan showing Jesus the "kingdoms of the world" and telling Jesus all of it can be his if he, Jesus, will worship him. In effect Jesus is offered the wealth of the world if he will give his soul over to the Devil. Jesus' response is "Get thee behind me, Satan" (Matthew 4, verse 10).
Woody may not have felt he was being asked to sell his soul to the Devil; but apparently he did feel that he was being asked to sell out his principles for the sake of worldly success. This is the content, as Woody told it, of his resignation letter to Model Tobacco: "Dear Sirs, I have smoked your tobacco. I've chewed your tobacco, and I've even snuffed your tobacco. But I'll be goddamned if I'll have your tobacco shoved up my ass." (2) That may not exactly be "Get thee behind me Satan," but the sentiment is similar.
These two stories of Woody Guthrie and Jesus Christ, different as they are in content and style, both involve an individual refusing success and power--as defined by the conventional standards of his day--for the sake of a higher good and calling. Jesus walked away from worldly temptation to live a life in which he tried to bring some measure of hope and kindness and justice to the outcasts of his day. A few months after walking away what would have been--in 2010 dollars--an annual salary of over 130K, Woody finds himself "in little greasy hovels that would being the rising sun to tears," trying to give the inhabitants of these hovels some measure of hope and dignity.
For the sake of honesty, however, it should be noted that Jesus, so far as we know, wasn't dragging a wife and three very young kids around with him; and making their lives extremely difficult, for the sake of a "higher calling."
While Woody most likely did not regard himself as "Mister Jesus," he nonetheless felt a strong sense of identity with the man, Jesus of Nazareth. He, Guthrie, had no apparent use for all of the theological wranglings that arose after Jesus' earthly ministry--and which continue to this day--about to who he was, or whether or not he was also God. It was not the finer points of theology, vis a vis the person of Jesus, that interested Woody. Instead Woody projected his vision and passion of a free, fair, and just world for working people onto the image of Jesus as contained in the New Testament Gospels.
More accurately, Woody projected his vision onto an image of Jesus. The greatest irony, when it comes to the person of Jesus, is that the man who has the greatest name recognition in the Western world, is the same person about whom very little is actually known. The New Testament Gospels are not biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, in the sense that biography is understood today. They are more like religious tracts produced by the First and Second Century Church that supported a theological interpretation of the life of Jesus that the Church had come to adopt.
The result of this is that the person of Jesus--whoever he was--is akin to a Rorschach blot upon which all manner of speculation and interpretation can be projected. Granted the Gospel accounts are considerably more defined than an ink blot on a page in that they do tell a discernable story. But the Jesus Narrative is still vague enough, and open-ended enough, to invite a wide range of interpretation and projection. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as portrayed in the New Testament Gospels, Woody Guthrie found his archetype working class/working people's hero.
To say this is a projection is not to dismiss or denigrate Woody's take on Jesus. However much his folksy ways and mannerisms and language may have disguised it, Woody Guthrie was a scholar--probably one of the most unpretentious scholars to ever live, but a scholar nonetheless. And one of the many areas in which he had a good store of knowledge and wisdom was religion. He knew what the Christian Gospels had to say, and he may have had some familiarity with the emerging field of Biblical scholarship that began to develop in the mid-to-late 19th century. Whatever the case, Woody Guthrie's projection of a need and desire for a working class hero was not a fabrication, but rather what he extracted from his knowledge of the Jesus Story and his understanding of how it came to be told.
Woody did not have a formal religious education in the sense of going to Church and Sunday School on a regular basis while he was growing up. As his sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, notes, "We didn't get up on Sunday morning and get dressed and go to church." (3). But there was still an identifiable religious content to Woody's early years. As Mary Jo also recalls, "We were ruled by Jesus, and said the Lord's Prayer regularly. These rules set forth by our father, Charley, were imbedded in us forever." (4).
Beyond being "ruled by Jesus" at home, and having such rule "imbedded" in him, Woody could not help but be taken by the predominance of the figure of Jesus in the early 20th century rural Oklahoma culture into which he was born and raised. In that setting the presence of Jesus permeated the cultural atmosphere. Indeed, in the strong evangelical Protestant aura of that time and place, Jesus was pretty hard to miss whether or not one got up on a Sunday morning and got dressed for church.
The Jesus figure, then, whom Woody had internalized at an early age remained with him throughout his life. New York City in 1940 was a long way from Okemah and Pampa in many more ways than one, but the Jesus whom Woody first encountered in those two small towns must have been much on his mind when he wrote Jesus Christ. As Woody himself tells it: "I wrote this song looking out of a rooming house window in New York City in the winter of 1940. I saw how the poor folks lived, and then I saw how the rich folks lived, and the poor folks down and out and cold and hungry, and the rich ones out drinking good whiskey and celebrating and wasting handfuls of money on gambling and women, and I got to thinking about what Jesus said, and what if He was to walk into New York City and preach like he used to. They'd lock him back in jail as sure as you're reading this. 'Even as you've done it unto the least of these little ones, you have done it unto me.'" (6).
The passage Woody quotes is from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verse 40, where Jesus gives an account of how the Final Judgment will take place. However literally, or not, Woody took that story, he took the tune of The Ballad of Jesse James and wrote the following song:
Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land; a hard working man and brave.
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor," But they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
Jesus was a man, a carpenter by hand. His followers were true and brave
One dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot has laid Jesus Christ in his grave
He went to the preacher, he went to the sheriff. He told them all the same:
"Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the poor," And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
When Jesus came to town all the working folks around believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed him on the cross, And they laid Jesus
Christ in his grave.
And the people held their breath when they heard about his death. Everybody
It was the big landlord and the soldiers that they hired to nail Jesus Christ in
This song was written in New York City, of rich man, preacher and slave
If Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee
They would lay poor Jesus in his grave.
This song points to one of the many ironies, or paradoxes, in Woody's life: His attraction to the life and teachings of Jesus and his attraction, for a time, to the Communist Party came from the same piece of cloth. Whether it was Christianity or Communism, Woody had little use for ideology in either realm. He first "met Jesus," so to speak, in the years leading up to the struggles of the Dust Bowl, followed by the Depression, in rural Oklahoma and Texas. His first encounters with the Communist Party were in the greater Los Angeles area--also in the Depression Era--when his saw his fellow Oklahomans and Texans, among others, desperately trying to eke out an existence in the agricultural fields of southern California. This was when and where he first met Will Geer, and largely through Geer's arrangements began singing at Party rallies.
While the official Marxist party line may hold that religion is the "opiate of the people," Woody never felt he had to give up Jesus for the sake of following the party line. He saw the same ultimate goals being present in both the Jesus Narrative and in the dictates of socialism/communism. However naïve, or not, he may have been on this score the point is that when it came to Guthrie's religious consciousness and his political awareness, each one fed on the other. In expressing his admiration, for example, for Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party's five time Presidential candidate, Woody said of Debs that, he was a "pure cross between Jesus Christ and Abe Lincoln." (7).
Woody was only eight years old when Debs made his last run for President in 1920--from a jail cell, no less--but what he knew of Mr. Debs caused Woody to place him in his personal pantheon with Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. In writing his song Christ for President, Woody's mind may have been going back and forth between Eugene Debs and the Man from Galilee:
Let's have Christ for President. Let's have Him for our king.
Cast your vote for the Carpenter that you call the Nazarene
The only way you can ever beat these crooked political men
Is to run the money-changers out of the temple
And put the Carpenter in.
O it's Jesus Christ our President; God above our King—
With a job and a pension for the young and old, we will make hallelujah ring!
Every year we waste enough to feed the ones who starve;
We build our civilization up, and we shoot it down with wars.
But with the Carpenter on the seat, away up in the capital town
The USA will be on the way--prosperity bound!
This is hardly something a doctrinaire Communist would write. It reflects more of a blend of religious sentiments and socialist utopianism: "A job and a pension for the young and old, we will make hallelujah ring!" The man who introduced Woody to the Communist Party, the aforementioned actor Will Geer, acknowledged as much: "He (Guthrie) was just a socialist instead of being an extreme Marxist. He was more of a Eugene Debs type. He certainly wasn’t a Stalinist." (8)
Woody, by most accounts, did not combine his identification with the person of Jesus and his attraction to Debs' brand of socialism until he was well beyond Okemah and Pampa; but that blend was also in the cultural atmosphere of Guthrie's early years. In his definitive biography of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Man, Ed Cray describes this blend of socialism and frontier Christianity:
Protestantism ran deep on the Western frontier, "an enveloping ideology that gave meaning to the world of the country folk," wrote historian Garin Burbank. It succored the poor in their misery and celebrated the rich in their success, explained good and evil as God's mysterious ways and comforted both the rich and the poor in dark times.
Many prairie socialists found it hard to entirely throw over the old faith for the atheistic new. Instead they melded the two, arguing that socialist reform would lead to the Kingdom of Christ….
Socialism in Oklahoma became "the primitive gospel of applied Christianity." Onetime Presbyterian elder O.E. Enfield, a recent convert to socialism, assured readers of the Ellis County Socialist that he wanted to be called "comrade." "There is [he said] only one title at the sound of which my heart throbs with greater joy, and that is the word 'Christian.'" (9).
Dr. Cray does not specifically say whether Woody had any direct encounter with this kind of Christian Socialism during his Okemah/Pampa years, but that "primitive gospel of applied Christianity" clearly comes through in Woody's Christ for President.
An irony in all of this is that one of the most vehement, and outspoken, opponents of Christian Socialism was Woody's father, Charley Guthrie. As an active player, and occasional minor office holder, in the Democratic Party of his day, Charley Guthrie appears to have seen himself on some kind of a "mission from God" to see that his Democratic Party be free of any kind of socialistic infestation. In 1912, the year of Woody's birth, Charley Guthrie self-published an anti-socialist booklet of some 80 pages, leading off with these words, and employing a little Biblical imagery: "The purpose of this little book is to give the reader an idea of the dangerous and poisonous fangs of the tempting serpent which is lurking behind the advancing claims of socialism." (10).
What may have motivated Charley to write his book was a visit to Okemah in that same year of 1912 by a Rev. Thurman (first name and religious affiliation are not available) who spoke on behalf of the Socialist Party in that election year. Thurman was advocating for the compatibility of socialism and the teachings in the Christian Gospels. In response to Rev. Thurman's speech in Okemah, Charley ran an article in the local newspaper titled: "Evasive, Shifting and Inconsistent: A Careful Diagnosis of the Socialist and Anti-Christian Speech Made in this City on Christmas Day by Agitator Thurman." (11). His book was an outgrowth of that article.
A curious factor here is that the elder Guthrie lived until 1956, and was able to witness his son's adult life and career. By 1956 Woody had been diagnosed with Huntington's chorea, and had already been hospitalized, off and on, with the disease. Charley must have been acquainted with his son's views, which combined his admiration for the life and teachings of Jesus with his socialist leanings. Yet there is no record that this writer can detect of any exchange of opinions that Woody and Charley Guthrie might have had about their highly conflicting views on any relationship between the teachings of Jesus and the tenets of socialism.
Be that as it may, a good case can be made that Woody Guthrie's veneration of Jesus of Nazareth was one of the factors that held him back from an unqualified embrace of Communist Party dogma. Woody very likely felt a mystical kind of identity with that "hard working man and brave" who traveled about the land of his day, attempting to bring an empowering message of hope and courage to the societal outcasts he deliberately chose to cast his lot with.
The men and women whom Woody considered to be "his people," basically occupied the same social and economic strata in the America of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s as did those of whom Jesus in his day said, "Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the Kingdom of God." Woody's vision was that of a more earth bound "Kingdom" for the dispossessed of his day, and he strongly believed that their rightful inheritance was a fair share of a land that was made for you and me.
Steve Edington is the minister of a Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire. His previous books are "The Beat Face of God--The Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides" and "Kerouac's Nashua Connection."
1. Pastures of Plenty--A Self-Portrait. The Unpublished Writings of an American Folk Hero Woody Guthrie. David Marsh and Howard Leventhal, Editors. Harper/Collins. pp. 53-54.
2. Woody, Cisco, and Me by Jim Longhi. University of Illinois Press. p. 59.
3. Personal correspondence with Mary Jo Edgmon.
4. Personal correspondence with Mary Jo Edgmon.
5. Woody Guthrie, as cited in the notes for Woody Guthrie. This Land is Your Land: The Asch Recordings. Volume One. pp. 17-18.
6. As cited in Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. W.W. Norton and Company. p. 324.
7. Will Geer, as cited in Cray's Ramblin' Man… p. 172.
8. Ed Cray. Ramblin' Man… p. 9.
9. Ed Cray. Ramblin' Man… p. 10.
10. Henry Menig. Woody Guthrie: The Oklahoma Years. 1912-1929. Originally published in "The Chronicles of Oklahoma." Summer, 1975. p. 2. (Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives).
All words by Woody Guthrie | Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. | www.WoodyGuthrie.org