The Art of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967)
by Katherine Anne Porter

       Here is a contemporary of the New Critics, whose work has never come to their attention.  I suspect that when they identify themselves with agrarianism, they mean the aristocratic mythology of the Old South, and are not really interested in a country boy so close to home.  I am bosom buddies with some of the New Critics (others aren't really interested in bosoms).  They all focus on precisely the textual density often achieved by Mr. Guthrie, one of the most gifted lyricists since Robert Burns (to whom Woody wrote at least one letter--did Bobby reply?).

       Let me just examine, somewhat after the manner of the New Criticism, one of his little masterpieces.  Oh, I'll not use their hifalutin vocabulary.  Where Mr. Guthrie and I come from, few words count for more than many.  I shall show that his subject matter, the way he treats it, and the sense he gives to it constitute a unified perception, which could not be conveyed in any other way.  Is this not what we mean by art:  beauty achieved through absolute integrity of material, form, and content?  You may say what you will about the importance of a "message."  Our classics have survived out of the past as treasured for their beauty.

       Mr. Guthrie finds a topic in the rough company he has chosen for himself.  Some call them hoboes, bums, Guthrie calls them "travelers," those down-and-out, illicit riders on railroad freight cars.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s there are so many of them, and they are so often injured that the railroads designate an employee, the brakeman, to control the problem.  The travelers call him a "bull," no doubt for just such tough measures as Mr. Guthrie records here.  The encounter entails harsh consequences for the travelers, and a fatal end for the railroad bull himself.

      By setting his ballad "down in the scrub oak country," Mr. Guthrie may inadvertently reveal something about himself.  "The town of Kilgore" actually lies among high pine forests in the rolling hills of East Texas.  The "scrub oak" of Guthrie's own home territory begins only a hundred miles further west.  He is remembering a visit to Kilgore when it was an unlovely oil boom town, not different from the Okemah of his boyhood or from Texas Panhandle towns of his youth.  Mr. Guthrie knows "Kilgore and Longview twelve miles down" also as a rail center where "the tales are switched down the stems and mains," among travelers seeking shelter in their "jungle yards" and conversing in railroad argot.

       The time is a cold and wintry day, when there are many "boys on the hunt of a job."  The few lucky families, "the working people," do not treat them as bums, but will hand out "a carrot or spud just to boil a stew around."  Even the railroad bull may not himself be an evil man.  Mr. Guthrie notes that the office is notorious, and "the bulls are tough," but Guthrie speaks up for them elsewhere:

They'll tell you, yes, I'm tough, I'm paid to be tough, and if I ain't tough, the boss'll get somebody what is tough.  When that five o'clock whistle blows, and I take off my harness, then I'm a pretty good feller, something like you, but when that morning eight o'clock rolls around, I put my rig back on, and I get tough again, and I stay tough all day long--and it just so happens that I'm tough right this minute.
Hard as it may seem on a cold day, when your last stew pot gets kicked over, it is not the worst thing that has happened to young men in the railroad yards.  Many no doubt dream of eventual retribution, but the experienced bull is undaunted by desperate threats.
Red he laughed and he clumb the bank and he swung on the side of a wheeler
And the boys caught a train to Seminole, and west to Amarillo.
Red has his job on the heavy equipment (a "wheeler" may be a road grader), and the hungry travelers set off to the high plains. Experiences like theirs were many times repeated during the Great Depression, so commonplace as to be merely representative.

       But here is the point where Mr. Guthrie's hobo recollection discovers its artistic form.  The travelers issue a threat, pointing to "just one year from today," harkening back to the ancient oracle which casts a time frame out beyond ordinary history, its fulfillment fatally predestined.  Hence the almost musical resolution expressed in the final line, as over Red's corpse the travelers sit down at last to consume that meal begun one year ago to the day.  These diners are as surely murderers as Atreus and Thyestes, but the meal here over the victim's body asserts an inexorable rightness in the world.  Insofar as we may share their feeling, we are left with the final problem posed by great art:  what in the world can it mean?

       That is a question of course to be answered only by the work itself, and only in the language of the work.  We do best to read it over with the question in our mind.  The language is not such as the New Critics, or any other critics for that matter, are wont to call "poetic."  It is common--worse, it is platitudinous: "A gun wheeled out of an overcoat and played the old one two."  The meter is everywhere crippled, hobbling along in exactly the crazy gimp of the little minstrel himself, who soon enough lost all control of his limbs.  --We realize that we have been flung four thousand years back into the age of the bard, what we have on paper only an uncertain scribble of its true existence in song, and in the ear of the audience.  The singer does with each syllable and line as he pleases, meter and rhymes perfected only in his delivery.  Occasionally he signals the pick up of a new strophe, for example, by the slight acceleration of internal rhyme.  Then we know something is coming.

       His choice of words sets his story against the backdrop of hard traveling on cold shiny irons through the unforgiving machines of an industrial world.  Men have the machines to thank for their jobs--if they are lucky enough to have one.  If they are good men they look out for one another, be it in the jungle yards, or by giving a handout to a destitute traveler.  But everybody serves the machines.  Red, moreover, is introduced as one who even draws pleasure from the job, "just a sportin' his smooth runnin' gun."  This little machine of his own assures his overwhelming power over the travelers.  He can fulfill his official duty, protect railroad property, with no more than a kick flinging their warm meal over the bush.  They are helpless--can only threaten.  Red has heard idle threats before this.  He is just, as they say in the industrial world, doing his job.  Is that wrong if he does it with zest?

       There, I think, we have a message.  It pertains to authority, indeed to all organized life, to the context in which each of us lives and works.  As for me, I cannot help but think how the German word for "job" is Amt, a person who has one, a Beamte.  It is in my day, you know, that Adolf Hitler makes his pact with Joseph Stalin, two great overlords of officialdom.  No one is better at doing their jobs than the Germans.  Woody, as we say back in Texas, I hear ya'.  Meaningful human activity always requires organization.  We all truly have a job.  We must all be Beamte, however hateful that may be to us.  But woe to the man who takes his job too seriously.  Woe to the organization whose members become too loyal.  At that point, of course, the organization is served, but no longer itself serves humanity.  Loyalty to the railroad has become destructive of Red's human responsibility. The hungry travelers must turn to ancient self help, or as in this ballad, to the law of the smooth runnin' gun.

       But now, you see, I did not say that nearly as well as Mr. Guthrie does.  So let me just repeat:  his subject matter, two boys on the hunt of a job; his song in their language, and in the symbolism of hard industrial equipment; his message, the callousness of man--and our fate.  Under a deft hand emerges a little piece of beauty which transcends itself.

                                                                                                                         Indian Creek, Texas

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