Before Woody Guthrie strummed out his version of “Hobo’s Lullaby,” he had probably seen–and laughed at–Will Rogers’s lovable tramp, Jubilo, in the movies. As an older teenager, he had likely heard–and was moved by–Rogers’s words on the radio: “The only problem that confronts this country today is at least seven million people are out of work.” This was the Depression and the cowboy comedian spoke uncharacteristically earnestly. “That’s our only problem. There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work.”
Thirty-three years separated these two men by age, but the roots of both sprang from the Oklahoma heartland. They came of age in different historical circumstances, yet the significance of their careers was strikingly similar. Both were champions of the common man. Both were uncommonly influential entertainers.
Will was born in 1879, when Oklahoma was still Indian Territory; Woody in 1912, five years after statehood. Okies they might have been, but each had to move to a coastal metropolis to make his name. Will started out in New York, before establishing residence in greater Los Angeles. Woody began in Los Angeles before making his way, inevitably, to New York. Neither man was especially comfortable in the big city–or even staying very long in one place. The road was their second home (if not their first). Will covered, by far, the more ground (and air and sea), but Woody’s aimless wanderings were impressive in their own way.
Woody and Will both required regular contact with the open spaces and small towns of America. Their art depended upon it. For his part, Will served as a kind of mediator between coastal elites and everyday Americans. His bona fides as a regular guy were beyond question every time he opened his mouth and drawled out a folksy witticism. His star quality was underscored every time he called the president “Cal” or the country’s biggest financier “Barney.” Will Rogers’s sympathies always lay with the little guy, but his love of schmoozing with bigwigs was obvious to all. More to the point, Will was a bigwig. Presidents and CEOs wanted to be seen schmoozing with him.
Not Woody. He mistrusted the rich and powerful. He spent his whole career fighting for the American worker, against the owners and the capitalists. After establishing residency in New York for just two months in 1940, he was already itching to get out. Too many people full of self-importance, he said. He packed his family and their belongings in the car and got out of town as fast as he could.
Both men were successful, but no one was successful like Will Rogers. No one in American history, before or since, wielded such broad appeal or so much cultural influence. At a time when up to twenty-five percent of the workforce was unemployed, when the median income for the other seventy-five percent was less than $1,500, Will brought in $325,000 in movie income alone. Newspaper, radio, and public speaking fees would have put him over half a million (at least nine million dollars today). According to Will’s biographer, Thomas Watson of IBM was the only American who made more money in 1934.
Woody barely raised himself out of poverty–or, at least, never for long. His biggest hit, “This Land Is Your Land,” led to wide popularity and new sources of income. (“They are giving me money so fast I’m using it to sleep under,” he wrote to folk music collector, Alan Lomax.) But Woody wasn’t comfortable being comfortably well-off when so many were still hard-up. And, too, he chafed under corporate control. So he let the new opportunities slide. He slipped back into financial insecurity.
The two Okies’ bank accounts differed, but their attitudes toward money were much the same: They spent it when they had it. Or gave it away. Will’s access to large sums made him one of the most generous philanthropists of his day, but even during his more modest Follies days he pledged a hundred dollars a week to the Red Cross for the duration of the war. Given his poverty, Woody’s generosity was perhaps the more impressive. His biographer wrote of him in his hoboing days in the Depression, “When he made a little money in town painting a sign, he’d buy food he could share with others, or give the money away to down-and-out people who looked like they needed it more than he did.”
Both men, in the 1930s, sparked controversy by using the N-word over the airwaves. Woody was only twenty-five in 1937 when he sang “Nigger Blues” during his radio show on KFVD. He received a single letter from a disappointed listener. Woody apologized on the air and, for dramatic effect, ripped up the sheet music in front of the microphone. In 1934, Will was all of fifty-five when he referred to a song as a “nigger spiritual” on his nationally broadcast show. He received a flood of calls and letters in protest. Will responded by getting defensive. “Darkies raised me,” he explained, using an only slightly less offensive term. “I wasn’t only raised among darkies, down in the Indian territory, but I was raised by them.” Oddly–disappointingly–he never apologized.
Woody had the benefit of following in Will’s footsteps. He saw how Will turned homespun commonsense into a virtue. When Woody began writing a column for People’s World, he named it “Woody Sez,” in homage to Will’s long-running daily telegrams titled “Will Rogers Says.” In one column, Woody wrote, “Billionaires cause hoboes, and hoboes make billionaires. Yet both cuss the other and say they are wrong…but personal I ruther trust the hoboes.” Both the message and the loose grammar echoed his predecessor. In a 1931 broadcast, Will had told his listeners, “I don’t suppose there is the most unemployed or the hungriest man in America has contributed in some way to the wealth of every millionaire in America.” Woody’s politics were much more radical than Will’s, whose allegiance to the Little Guy was fundamentally conservative. But Woody’s admiration for Will was clearly evident in the name he chose for his first son: Will Rogers Guthrie.
Will was the more obviously successful in his own lifetime, but Woody has been at least as influential since. Woody’s hundreds of recorded songs, both original and traditional, led an American folk revival that culminated in the 1960s. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, and others built their careers on foundations he helped lay. Woodstock is inconceivable without Woody Guthrie.
Will’s movies, by contrast, were cinematic dead-ends; his vaudeville roping tricks are as lost to us as Atlantis. Yet political commentary like that in his weekly articles, daily telegrams, and radio broadcasts has become a defining feature of modern American culture. In the twenty-first century, millions of Americans tune in to political comedy, of the kind Will initiated, on a virtually nightly basis. Tens of millions follow bloggers daily in the same way that millions in the 1920s and 30s read the columns just one man: Will Rogers.
Gragert, Steven K., ed. Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma State University Press, 1983.
Partridge, Elizabeth. This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie. New York, Viking: 2002.
Ware, Amy M. The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and The Making of an American Icon, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015.
Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.