THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Woody Guthrie, folk singer, songwriter and musician, and friend of Nikkei


Japanese Americans were not able to find many outside supporters during the early days of World War II. Even in cosmopolitan New York, Socialist party leader Norman Thomas, the only national political figure to oppose Executive Order 9066, later stated that he never in his life found an issue on which it was so difficult to attract the usual liberal and labor support. However, throughout the war years, Japanese Americans could count on the vocal solidarity (in more than one sense of the word) of a unique hakujin friend living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He wrote a memoir in which he boasted of defending Japanese Americans. He subscribed to the Japanese American Citizens League newspaper, Pacific Citizen, and had it sent regularly to his home. Eventually, he even contributed articles himself to the newspaper, and corresponded with its editors. And he sang for Nisei groups, including his own folk songs, many of which would soon become legendary.

The name of this exceptional figure? Woody Guthrie.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, in the then-new state of Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912, the second son and third child of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. The family faced a number of financial and personal difficulties in the coming years. Woody’s sister Clara died young, and Nora Belle Guthrie was institutionalized after contracting a then-unknown degenerative nerve disorder, Huntington’s disease. She died in an asylum for the insane in Norman, Okla. in 1930. In 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, Guthrie left Oklahoma, and settled in the town of Pampa, Texas. There he met and married a young woman, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children.

The onset of the great Dust Bowl of the mid 1930s forced Guthrie to abandon his home. Like so many “Okie” refugees, he migrated west to California, riding the rails or hitchhiking in order to make his way. While Guthrie had already worked in Texas as part of a singing trio, it was during his wanderings that he found his voice, singing in saloons or in camps along the road. After he arrived in California, he secured a job as a broadcaster for radio station KFVD in Los Angeles, singing “old-time” traditional songs. He supplemented these with his own compositions. His songs and radio commentary showed a strong social consciousness, especially over the plight of the Okies and the need for union organization. He also grew close to the Communist Party, and began a regular column, “Woody Sez,” for the party newspaper People’s World. With his partner Cisco Houston, Guthrie toured migrant worker camps to sing and build support for unionization.

Even as he fought prejudice against the Okies and Arkies, Guthrie became conscious of discrimination against various non-white Americans, including Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans, and he befriended Issei and Nisei. As he later put it, “I met and seen the Japanese farm families, watched them crawl on their knees through the worst patches of land, and turn that land into the richest land by hard work. … They gave me water and wine to drink. I played my guitar in 10 dozen Japanese taverns and cafes all over Frisco, Sacramento, Stockton, Los Angeles.”

Guthrie became controversial for his uncritical support for the Communist Party following the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in August of 1939. He left California in early 1940 and moved to New York. There he was taken up by Leftist and Progressive intellectuals. He recorded a series of ballads for Alan Lomax, the celebrated folklorist at the Library of Congress, and recorded an album of “Dust Bowl Ballads” for RCA Victor. It was at this time that he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” his most celebrated song, which would become an alternate national anthem. Guthrie helped form a loose group of politically informed folk singers, the Almanac Singers, who would produce songs about current events. Another prominent member was Pete Seeger, with whom Guthrie would develop a lasting partnership.

In 1941, Guthrie spent several months sojourning in the Pacific Northwest (hired by the New Deal-era Bonneville Power Administration to write songs about their power projects, he rapidly produced the classic songs “Roll On Columbia!” and “The Grand Coulee Dam.”) After a brief stop in Texas, he made his way back to New York. During the years of World War II, Guthrie was based in New York, but did singing tours and also served in the Army and the Merchant Marine. In 1942, he met Marjorie Mazia, and soon after, the two moved to 3520 Mermaid Ave. in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. In the ensuing years, they would marry and have four children, among them the folk musician Arlo Guthrie. In 1943, Guthrie produced a fictionalized autobiography, “Bound For Glory.”

During the war years Guthrie deepened his relationship with Japanese Americans. He was attracted by the new weekly Nisei newspaper Pacific Citizen and its dynamic editor Larry Tajiri, though they never met personally. In June of 1942, in his very first issue, Tajiri had lamented that Nisei did not have the same folk music tradition as other groups, such as blacks or Okies, who could turn the adversity of forced migration into song. Tajiri cited Guthrie as his model. “Woody Guthrie, an evacuee out of the parched lands of the Dust Bowl, sang ‘Going down the Road Feeling Bad,’ wrote his ‘Dust Bowl Ballads,’ which are already as much a part of American music as the spirituals from the deep south.” Guthrie, impressed by the plight of the Nisei, became an early PC subscriber. He also got to know members of New York’s wartime anti-fascist group Japanese American Committee for Democracy, presumably through Toshi Aline Ohta, the wife of his friend Pete Seeger, who was a founding member. Guthrie and the well-known folk singer Leadbelly would later perform at a JACD dance.

Meanwhile, Guthrie found another way to demonstrate his solidarity. In his book “Bound For Glory,” he reported that on the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, he was singing in a bar in Los Angeles’ Skid Row when he heard glass breaking. When he rushed out to investigate, he discovered that a mob, infuriated by the Japanese attack, had broken the plate-glass window of a neighboring Japanese restaurant. Guthrie’s partner Cisco Houston, aware of the loyalty of Japanese Americans, defended them to the mob, saying, “These little Japanese farmers that you see up and down the country here, and these Japanese people that run the little old cafés and gin joints, they can’t help it because they happen to be Japanese.” With help from a group of passing soldiers and sailors, they made a human barricade to protect the restaurant from the mob. In fact, as Larry Tajiri later reported, “The incident never happened. In just that way, anyway. Woody says he made it up just so he could show people how he felt about the mass evacuation of Japanese Americans and prejudice against them there on the coast.”

Even after joining the Army, Guthrie remained interested in Japanese Americans. In January of 1946, he published an editorial in the Pacific Citizen entitled “Take it Easy—But Take It!” In it, Guthrie wrote with passionate sympathy about the continuing struggle against “racial fascism” in America, and the central importance of folk music as a tool for unity. “My accent is Negro and Indian and Scotch, heavy on the last, but I am just as proud of my Negro and Indian ways as I am of the Scotch.” Guthrie challenged the Nisei to write songs that would serve as an authentic expression of their struggles and experiences. “So you see. You see how your story of the Japanese American workers, soldiers, artists and scholars, blends and molds into the union struggle to go ahead and wipe all traces of racial fascism out of our nation’s eye, and out of the whole world. I don’t know of anybody anywhere that has got a better story to sing than you folks, Japanese Americans everywhere. If you had five albums of hard-hitting records out on the shelves of the music stores or in books a thousand songs, I would buy and sing them all.”

In 1946, after being discharged from the Army, Guthrie returned to Brooklyn and continued his writing, singing and activism. He continued subscribing to the Pacific Citizen — a 1949 feature on Guthrie noted that it was part of his regular reading. He also corresponded with the Tajiris. In a surviving letter from 1946, Guthrie thanked Tajiri for sending him material about Joe Hill (Hillstrom) the martyred labor organizer who was subject of the famed 1939 Earl Robinson song. Guthrie enclosed lyrics of his own song about Hill. Two years later, the Pacific Citizen ran Guthrie’s brief review of a recital by the Nisei dancer Yuriko Amemiya (Kikuchi), a member of Martha Graham’s troupe. (It is likely that Guthrie was inspired to attend by his wife Marjorie, herself a one-time Martha Graham dancer). The review, couched in folksy, almost Mark Twain-like prose, may have originally formed part of a letter: “Yuriko did a fine job in front of a set made up and lighted for her by Isamu Noguchi. The set needed to change around, light up, or do something instead of stay lit one way through her whole dance. Yuriko is little and quick as a cat and moves by habit in this way. She can squirm and twist around on the floor in her fits and seizures and make you like it as a dance. I like any move she makes.”

In the early 1950s, even as he faced McCarthy-era blacklisting, Guthrie’s behavior became increasingly erratic. In November of 1952, in one of his last public appearances, Guthrie performed at a folk festival at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles. Among the others on the program, Sue Kunitomi Embrey — the future founder of the Manzanar Pilgrimage — was featured as a singer of Japanese tunes!

In 1954, Guthrie checked himself into a hospital. At length, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, the degenerative nerve disorder that had struck his mother. Guthrie passed his last years as an invalid in a hospital, and died in 1967. By that time, he had become a spiritual godfather to the folk music movement, including such notables as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. His support for Japanese Americans, long obscure, provides yet another dimension into his humanitarian interests and love of democracy.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

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