Did he find the stories, or did the stories find him?

Woody Guthrie's folk songs became the heartbeat of a nation in misery. Photo: Michael Ochs.
Woody Guthrie’s folk songs became the heartbeat of a nation in misery. Photo: Michael Ochs.

WOODY GUTHRIE WAS ALWAYS a man on the move, a man who saw a story, and then a song, at the end of every mile he walked, a hobo with a guitar, who knew that all roads led somewhere, and he regretted that he couldn’t take them all.

He left the oil-splattered streets of the Texas Panhandle behind and drifted into Kilgore to visit Tom Moore, a boomtown barber.

East Texas, he decided, wasn’t nearly as dusty as the plains out West, but then again, it wasn’t all that different either.

Oil towns all had the same personality and most of the same characters.

Their names and faces were different.

That’s all.

Woody Guthrie found a few odd jobs in the oil boom town of Kilgore, painting signs and working as a soda jerk in a downtown drugstore.

But as he walked out late one afternoon, he saw a crippled black man sitting on the sidewalk, his back pressed against the bricks.

Guthrie reached down and handed the old man his first week’s paycheck.

He would get another one, Guthrie figured.

Only the Good Lord knew when the black man might have a handful of money again.

Moore asked him, “How you gonna earn a living if you give it all away?”

Woody Guthrie only smiled on his way out of town.

There were still miles to go and songs to write about this land that was his land.

One was a song about “East Texas Red,” lamenting a railroad detective who hung around Jay Gould’s mule barn railroad depot in downtown Kilgore.

He had the nasty habit of beating up homeless drifters and died when a hobo’s bullet put an end to the beatings forever.

Woody Guthrie lived stories.

Woody Guthrie told stories.

He called them songs.

He was a quiet man, and he let his guitar do the talking.

He saw slices of  life that others missed.

He saw stories that others, perhaps, didn’t want to see.

And he told them with the raw honesty of a drifting folk singer who became the voice of America as he wandered amidst the reckless flotsam of the Great Depression.

One became a nation’s second anthem and should probably be its first: This Land is My Land.

His was the life of a simple man.

Write one story.

Put it to music.

Find another.

Hang around for a while, and the story would find him.

Don’t know why.

But it always did.

 

 

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  • Caleb,
    Great stuff. I never knew Woody Guthrie walked the streets of Kilgore. I’ve played “This land is your land” a few thousand times on the guitar, but the next time I do it, I’ll think of Woody and the railroad tracks not far from me.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I know I respected our hometown streets a little more as soon I found out he left his footprint there in the oil and the dust.

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