Uncovering Lost Art
By Brian Chase, student, Department of Journalism
In a life cut short by Huntington’s disease, Woody Guthrie still managed to compose hundreds of American folk ballads, most notably “This Land Is Your Land.” Although he was a prominent figure in American culture, much of Guthrie’s creative works have remained relatively obscure.
Chico State journalism professor Matthew Blake has spent his academic career examining Guthrie’s newspaper articles. Most recently Blake studied Guthrie’s newspaper cartoons, and his findings were published in the International Journal of Comic Art.
In “Political and Promotional Conceptions in Woody Guthrie’s People’s World Cartoons,” Blake emphasizes Guthrie’s work as a columnist. Specifically, his research includes the “Woody Sez” columns and cartoons as well as Guthrie’s advertisements for People’s World, a Communist party newspaper.
“It was unusual that this material had not been discovered,” Blake said. “Guthrie was and is such a formidable figure in American culture.”
During his 18-month tenure as a columnist for the San Francisco-based newspaper, Guthrie displayed an “obvious disregard” for spelling and proper grammar, a way for Guthrie to “make himself look less intelligent than he was,” Blake said.
The misspellings, however, were not due to lack of education. Many of the words such as “cood” and “git” were Guthrie’s way of associating himself with the working-class audience he was trying to reach by incorporating a Southwestern slang.
Guthrie often complemented his editorial articles with similarly themed cartoons, again using slang to add a humorous twist to the working man’s plight. The humor was not intended to make light of the situation, though. Rather it was an abstract way of conveying his contempt for financial establishments.
“In his cartoons, Guthrie referred to the financial system as a ‘monster,’” Blake said. “He actually portrayed Wall Street institutions as Frankenstein’s monster.”
While Guthrie’s songs implied similar, yet far more general, political messages, his cartoons advocated specific government policies. An example of one of Guthrie’s more explicit endorsements is a picture of an ideal neighborhood setting. The picture is accompanied by a caption reading, “COOD YA PERDUCE HOUSES FER USE!” referring to the proposed production-for-use state policy of the 1930s.
Along with Guthrie’s front-page cartoons about politics and social issues, there were the advertisements he contributed to the paper. Marked with the same “Woody Sez” logo as the cartoons, the advertisements would often depict a prominent cultural figure stating their discontent with not having their “World,” a nickname for People’s World.
While it is unclear whether or not the advertisements increased readers, they ran simultaneously with the cartoons and columns for the duration of Guthrie’s time at the newspaper.
Guthrie continued his social and political activism, but his contributions to the newspaper appeared less frequently toward the end of 1939. During 1940 Guthrie contributed fewer columns but communicated his message through other artistic outlets.
Blake continues to research Woody Guthrie and the effect he had on American culture. Using Guthrie’s writings as a foundation, Blake plans on classifying a particular type of journalism as “folk journalism.”
“It’s an attempt to more broadly consider many of the aspects seen in Guthrie’s writings,” Blake said. “Such as the use of vernacular writing and community representation in the press.”
—Brian Chase, student, Department of Journalism