History

Woody Guthrie's Los Angeles still being discovered

woody-guthrie-columnist-kcet.jpgIn honor of Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, which would have been last weekend, KCET blogger and artist Ed Fuentes went in search of understanding why LA's months of celebrating the Dust Bowl era singer-songwriter includes city signs proclaiming 4th and Main to be "Woody Guthrie Square." "Guthrie found his writing voice in Los Angeles, specifically in Skid Row," Fuentes writes. Some of the songs he wrote or performed here include "Fire in Los Feliz Hills," "Fifth Street Blues," "Lincoln Heights Jail" and "Los Angeles New Years Flood."

It wasn't an obscure passage through town that shaped Guthrie's music, but social observations that gave weight to his music and stage persona. "He definitely did have a connection to downtown. He lived in that area, basically in flop houses that rent by the week," says Peter La Chapelle, Ph.D., author of "Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California." "As a historian, we are looking at a lot of documents," he says. "We can see he is purposely misspelling or using a folk grammar in his language."


Guthrie witnessed the hillbilly craze in Los Angeles radio shows, which found an audience from those arriving from the Southwest to find work. Most radio stations in town had a hillbilly radio program of one kind or another featuring cowboy songs to more traditional folk songs, says La Chapelle, and in 1938, Guthrie played with his cousin, Jack, on KVFD Radio, then started blending traditional songs with topical lyrics.

More at KCET's Artbound site. Guthrie in 1939 began writing a column for what was then the liberal Hollywood Tribune.

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