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The Outlaw Tradition: The Counterhegemonic Depression Ballads of Woody Guthrie

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Abstract:

The Outlaw Tradition:
The Counterhegemonic Depression Ballads of Woody Guthrie

In his classic work Primitive Rebels, E. J. Hobsbawm describes social banditry as “little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty; a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs. Its ambitions are modest: a traditional world in which men are justly dealt with, not a new and perfect world.”
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, social banditry was practiced and celebrated among the destitute of American society in the rural Midwest and Southwest of the United Sates as the nation and world suffered through the crisis of capitalism known as the Great Depression. Figures such as Bonnie and Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and “Pretty Boy” Floyd were perceived as Robin Hood figures fighting against the banking system which had driven many farmers from their homes.
Such primitive rebels or outlaws were celebrated in the music of Woody Guthrie, who during the depression era penned ballads in tribute to such outlaws as Belle Starr, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Pretty Boy Floyd, as well as the fictional Tom Joad. These songs played upon folk traditions in which outlaws were perceived as defending the people against the injustices perpetrated by business and government. Guthrie, thus, wrote in “Pretty Boy Floyd” that some will rob you with a gun and others with a fountain pen, but he “had never seen an outlaw drive a family from their home.”
While Guthrie is sometimes perceived as somewhat of a country bumpkin, his political ideology is more sophisticated than many critics have acknowledged. For example, in his “Woody Sez” columns written for The People’s Daily World and Daily Worker, Guthrie recognized the limitations of social banditry for building the type of egalitarian world he envisioned the labor movement or communism might create. Nevertheless, he understood the frustration of the common people which erupted in social banditry, and Guthrie could not refrain from romanticizing these struggles.
This paper will address how the struggles of primitive rebels in the United States were celebrated during the 1930s in the music of Guthrie. Primitive rebels are often perceived as belonging to the culture of precapitalist or peasant societies and out of the American experience. The legacy of Woody Guthrie reminds us that the outlaw tradition is part of American and international working class history. Thus, a study of Guthrie’s outlaw compositions fit well in the conference theme of transhemispheric visions and community connections.
In recent years there has been an effort to make Guthrie more acceptable to a capitalist society by downplaying his radicalism as in the film Bound for Glory (1976). This paper represents part of a larger study investigating the radical political ideology of Woody Guthrie as revealed in his music as well as writings; seeking to restore his radical vision of a better day for the common people of America and the world.
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Briley, Ron. "The Outlaw Tradition: The Counterhegemonic Depression Ballads of Woody Guthrie" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p175658_index.html>

APA Citation:

Briley, R. , 2007-10-11 "The Outlaw Tradition: The Counterhegemonic Depression Ballads of Woody Guthrie" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p175658_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: The Outlaw Tradition:
The Counterhegemonic Depression Ballads of Woody Guthrie

In his classic work Primitive Rebels, E. J. Hobsbawm describes social banditry as “little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty; a cry for vengeance on the rich and the oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs. Its ambitions are modest: a traditional world in which men are justly dealt with, not a new and perfect world.”
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, social banditry was practiced and celebrated among the destitute of American society in the rural Midwest and Southwest of the United Sates as the nation and world suffered through the crisis of capitalism known as the Great Depression. Figures such as Bonnie and Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and “Pretty Boy” Floyd were perceived as Robin Hood figures fighting against the banking system which had driven many farmers from their homes.
Such primitive rebels or outlaws were celebrated in the music of Woody Guthrie, who during the depression era penned ballads in tribute to such outlaws as Belle Starr, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Pretty Boy Floyd, as well as the fictional Tom Joad. These songs played upon folk traditions in which outlaws were perceived as defending the people against the injustices perpetrated by business and government. Guthrie, thus, wrote in “Pretty Boy Floyd” that some will rob you with a gun and others with a fountain pen, but he “had never seen an outlaw drive a family from their home.”
While Guthrie is sometimes perceived as somewhat of a country bumpkin, his political ideology is more sophisticated than many critics have acknowledged. For example, in his “Woody Sez” columns written for The People’s Daily World and Daily Worker, Guthrie recognized the limitations of social banditry for building the type of egalitarian world he envisioned the labor movement or communism might create. Nevertheless, he understood the frustration of the common people which erupted in social banditry, and Guthrie could not refrain from romanticizing these struggles.
This paper will address how the struggles of primitive rebels in the United States were celebrated during the 1930s in the music of Guthrie. Primitive rebels are often perceived as belonging to the culture of precapitalist or peasant societies and out of the American experience. The legacy of Woody Guthrie reminds us that the outlaw tradition is part of American and international working class history. Thus, a study of Guthrie’s outlaw compositions fit well in the conference theme of transhemispheric visions and community connections.
In recent years there has been an effort to make Guthrie more acceptable to a capitalist society by downplaying his radicalism as in the film Bound for Glory (1976). This paper represents part of a larger study investigating the radical political ideology of Woody Guthrie as revealed in his music as well as writings; seeking to restore his radical vision of a better day for the common people of America and the world.

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