“What’s Wrong and How to Fix It”: Woody Guthrie and the Maintenance of Folk Music



In September 1940, Oklahoma-born musician, writer, artist and activist Woody Guthrie wrote to Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, laying out his philosophy of folk music. “A folk song,” he wrote “is what’s wrong and how to fix it,” as clear a statement of what maintenance is and does as any you’ll hear this conference.1

I argue that Guthrie’s understanding of folk music as maintenance is manifested in two ways. First, it can be seen in his creative output, which is filled with the figures of maintainers, and their hopes, dreams, fears and daily work. Second, it can be seen in his maintenance of tradition, and the use of that tradition as a way to maintain and repair the world.

I want to be clear about what I think maintenance is and does. I understand maintenance as a form of care work, and therefore work that is embodied, emotional and performative.2 I also understand it as cyclical and dialogic work where the doing of and the learning from are inextricably related. Maintainers diagnose, fix and test while learning how to do those things more effectively at the same time.

Writing maintenance

As he crisscrossed the country, Guthrie wrote songs and produced artwork that amplified the lives and voices of the maintainers whose company he kept.

Perhaps the most well-represented set are migrant laborers, particularly the “Okies” of the 1930s who fled the Dust Bowl in search of agricultural jobs in California.3 These itinerant workers supplied the cheap labor necessary to harvest crops which fed the rest of the country.4

In addition, Guthrie wrote extensively about the unnamed and largely unremembered workers who built New Deal infrastructure.5 He eschewed the planners and engineers, instead writing about the men hammering rivets, setting dynamite charges, pouring concrete and welding steel.6

The portraits Guthrie paints have both a particular perspective and agenda. His goal is not simply to create well-crafted characters, but rather to change hearts and minds by amplifying marginalized voices. That is why he frequently writes in the first person, inhabiting the lives and voices of his subjects.7 His use of possessive pronouns - particularly plural ones - throughout his writings, also asks us to take sides. As he wrote, this land is your land and my land, not their land.

This choice of perspective engages the importance of embodiment, and the primacy of personal experience as a means through which moral truth is known. By aiming for the heart of his audience, Guthrie underlines the importance of emotion and affective understanding. Fundamentally, his creative output seeks to generate empathy for maintainers by describing their labor.

Guthrie’s concern with maintainers extends to the systems they build and keep running.8 He was fascinated by public works projects such as highways and hydroelectric dams. Perhaps the best example of this is what is now known as the Columbia River song cycle, a set of 26 songs written for the Bonneville Power Administration. In these songs, Guthrie’s awe at the forces of nature and his respect for human labor are inseparable.

During the time he lived in New York City, Guthrie wrote about the city’s infrastructure. The themes should be familiar to current and past residents: wonder, awe, annoyance, and not infrequent bemusement about how things keep on working. Often impersonating a country rube, he wrote about the subways,9 derided extortionist landlords (one of whom happens to be our current President’s father)10 and marveled over the mosaic of sounds, smells and tastes that made up his Coney Island neighborhood.11 Sometimes he even speaks as the city itself.12

Methodologies of maintenance

However, it is not simply the topics of Guthrie’s songs that connect him so closely to maintenance. Instead, I argue his methodologies of composing and performing exemplify an approach to maintenance as a performative act of iterative improvisation.


Guthrie took an iterative approach to creative expression. That is, he generally used existing ideas, traditions and compositions as a basis for variations.13 This approach injects power into the new variation while simultaneously reframing the existing tradition.

We see this in his ongoing practice of “trying on” a variety of personas: a hillbilly who inserted radical politics into his folksy wisdom,14 an urban artist producing stream of consciousness free verse, a worn-out blues singer.

And we see it in his participation in the tradition of answer songs. Written in response to an existing song, these compositions will often make use of the original melody or premise, but then add a twist which undermines or opposes the original’s intent.15 Perhaps the most famous of these is This Land is Your Land, written in response to God Bless America.16

This approach to creative expression privileges incremental change over rupture. It recognizes that the already vulnerable are placed directly in harm’s way by massive and sudden changes. Although aligned with leftist politics, Guthrie’s approach to social change is one of incrementalism rather than revolution: of outlasting, outnumbering and outwitting.17


In 1949, Guthrie performed a concert at Fuld Hall, just down the road from here in Newark. Prefacing his song “Dust Bowl Blues” with an extended monologue on how he and his then-wife Marjorie Mazia met during a dance rehearsal, Guthrie expresses frustration with having to reproduce a song “beat for beat, pause for pause” based on a recording.18 Underlying this frustration is a drive towards continual exploration and iteration in search of a better version of the song.

This kind of iteration through improvisation is, I argue, fundamental to maintenance. Maintainers keep varying their approach, both so they don’t get bored, but also to incorporate new knowledge learned during previous repair processes. In other words, they do maintenance work and learn how to do maintenance work better at the same time.

This drive towards improvement might sound a lot like what we’d call innovation, but I argue there’s a key difference. Iterative improvisation values continuity, tradition and lived experience, innovation values exceptionalism, difference and abstraction. Guthrie was not trying to obliterate tradition, instead he was trying to speak to it and through it.19


We usually talk about maintenance as being “performed” rather than merely “done.” This indicates the fundamentally social and performative nature of maintenance. It is not just the work of repair, but also the reception and perception of that work by others: “Did I fix it? Do they think I fixed it? Do I think they think I fixed it?” In Guthrie’s performances, we see this social dimension of maintenance in operation. Although in popular imagination he is thought of as a solitary musician, in reality he tended to create and perform in collaboration with other musicians and artists.20 His family were collaborators too. For a period of time in the 1940’s, Guthrie was a stay-at-home dad, and his creative output reflects his children’s: artwork with bright colors and simple lines, and songs that play with sounds and language.21

Marjorie Mazia, who I mentioned above, was his most effective collaborator and creative foil.22 Her influence can be seen everywhere, from the instances of musical notation for his songs (Guthrie neither wrote nor read music) to much of his career when she served as his manager, booking concerts like the one I mentioned in Newark. She was a maintainer too.23

By arguing that maintenance is a performance, I am also arguing that maintainers are aware - on some level - that they are performing a role. Maintenance work is often described as “invisible” or “hidden” - words I’ve used myself - but if we accept that maintainers maintain self-consciously, then perhaps those terms say more about the blindness of those of us using them than they do about the reality of maintenance work.


I argue that Woody Guthrie’s creative output - and more broadly tradition-based performing arts - is maintenance work. It turns the old into the new, and the new into the old. It helps us understand the world and our place in it. It helps us understand that our connection to other people and traditions is more important than coming in first. It’s about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Maintenance is often layered on maintenance. The completion of maintenance in the present depends both on that work having been done in the past as well as the promise that it will be done in the future. Maintainers need maintenance too. By remembering the work of maintainers, we commit our own small act of maintenance, carrying forward their lives and the value of their work.

[1] “I think real folk stuff scares most of the boys around Washington. A folk song is whats wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry and where their mouth is is or whose out of work and where the job is or whose broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace is - that’s folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the politicians couldn’t find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work.” Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 19, 1940

[2] Here I draw on a vast body of writing on feminist care ethics including but not limited to Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982) and Nel Noddings’ Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Virginia Held’s work, in particular The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) also informs my thinking, as does Joan Tronto’s Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New York: Routledge, 1993). Last, and certainly not least, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ work has been hugely influential in shaping my thoughts in this area.

[3] On his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, he documents the travels and travails of these poor migrants as they journeyed west, all their worldly possessions tied to a ramshackle jalopy. Flat tires, treacherous roads and harsh weather conditions left this river of westward-bound immigrants “busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted,” in Guthrie’s turn of phrase. Arriving in California, these migrants discovered a harsh reality, with jobs both scarce and exploitative, and local police in league with union-busting vigilantes hired by the landowning elite. See, for example Talking Dust Bowl Blues and Do Re Mi.

[4] “Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine/To set on your table your light sparkling wine.” Pastures of Plenty

[5] The lyrics for The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done - an adaptation of I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago - place New Deal construction on the same level as a wide range of historical events, both real and imagined.

[6] See Jackhammer John, which mixes references to the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River in Washington with (not very subtle) sexual innuendo. Coal miners also appear in many of Guthrie’s songs. Their repetitive and subterranean toil, which supplied power to the electrical grid and made factories and cities run, shows up over and over as both a reality and a metaphor.

[7] In songs like Pastures of Plenty, Deportee and 1913 Massacre, as well as a collection of traditional songs authored with Alan Lomax called Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, Guthrie writes as a migrant worker, a striking miner and rural farmer.

[8] Guthrie was fascinated with technological innovation, and wrote extensively about atomic energy. Although some of ideas are fairly utopian (and, during World War II, even jingoistic) there is usually a dark undertone (see Atom Dance or Dance Around my Atom Fire), which can be read as a critique of optimistic approaches to innovation.

[9] See Talking Subway and New York Trains.

[10] A number of pieces have pointed out that the “Old Man Trump” of Guthrie’s Beech Haven Ain’t My Home is in fact Fred C. Trump.

[11] See, for example, Voice and Mermaid’s Avenue, both of which serve as snapshots of a 1940’s Coney Island that no longer exists.

[12] In My Name is New York Guthrie writes: “I’m the town called New York,
I was struck by the winds;
I been froze and been blistered
And then struck again;
I was struck by my rich folks,
And struck by my bums,
Struck by my mansions,
And struck by my slums.”

[13] As he wrote in Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, “But it just so happens that these songs here, they’re pretty, they’re easy, they got something to say, and they say it in a you can understand, and if you go off somewhere and change ‘em around a little bit, well, that don’t hurt nothin’. Maybe you got a new song. You have, if you said what you really had to say – about how the old world looks to you or how it ought to be fixed.”

[14] See, for example Woody Sez, his column for the Daily Worker, the paper of the Communist Party of the USA.

[15] By my count, Guthrie wrote about 200 of these songs over the course of his life. In general, these songs promote the agenda I previously described: they lift up the lives of marginalized maintainers and challenge narratives which valorize the privileged.

[16] See “The Story Of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’” for more on this.

[17] See the story of two besieged rabbits as told by Guthrie: “I guess the first time I ever heard about a union, I wasn’t more than eight years old. What I heard was the story of the two rabbits. It was a he rabbit and a she rabbit that a pack of hounds was chasing all over the countryside, and finally these rabbits they holed up inside a hollow log. Outside the dogs was a-howling. The he rabbit turned to the she rabbit and he said, What do we do now? And the she rabbit, she just give him a wink and said – We stay here til we outnumber them.”

[18] “We want you to sing that song exactly like you did on that night seventeen months ago here with the beer and pretzels.” The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949

[19] This raises a few interesting questions. How does an appearance of ontological newness affect epistemology? In other words, how does something “seeming new” impact what can be known about that thing? And can tradition be used as a force amplifier, even when one is working against a part of that tradition?

[20] He wrote and performed with many other musicians, including the Corn Cob Trio, a group he formed in Pampa, Texas; Maxine Crissman, aka “Lefty Lou,” his singing partner on Los Angeles’ KFVD radio station; and scions of the New York City folk scene including Josh White, Lead Belly and the Almanac Singers. His collaborations were not limited to musicians. He was also inspired by Stetson Kennedy - a Florida activist and folklorist most famous for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s - to produce a number of songs and drawings documenting racial injustice and violence. See Jorge Arévalo Mateus’ chapter “Beluthahatchee Blues: An Interview with Stetson Kennedy” in Radicalism in the South Since Reconstruction for more on this period of Guthrie’s life.

[21] With his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, he also created songs and artwork reflecting and documenting Jewish life in 1940’s Coney Island. See “How an Okie Named Woody Guthrie Became Our Best Hanukkah Tunesmith” from The Forward.

[22] About Marjorie: “We have worked together as a team in lots of ways, she has always been my chief advisor, critic, and my head organizer. She helps me with all my new song ideas, my story.”

[23] In fact, I argue that she, along with a few key helpers like Pete Seeger, is responsible for maintaining Guthrie’s legacy, preserving his notebooks and lyric sheets, and keeping him alive in popular consciousness.