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Newly Released FBI Files Expose Red-Baiting of Woody Guthrie

FBI records show the folk singer’s surveillance continued even after he stopped performing due to Huntington’s disease.

Photo of Woody Guthrie, circa 1940.

There is a long-standing controversy about singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie’s exact association with the Communist Party, with some describing him as a free-spirited sympathizer and others representing him as a party member. For its part, the FBI, which had difficulty establishing Guthrie’s membership bona fides, settled on the view that, card-carrying or not, Guthrie was to be treated as a communist. This is what sustained and defined the files that the FBI kept for more than a quarter of a century on Guthrie, the Oklahoma-born folk musician whose pro-labor and anti-fascist songs played a defining role in the folk movement starting from the 1940s until his death in 1967.

In 1980, the FBI released 134 pages from its files on Guthrie into the public record. Recently, in conducting research for a book on the FBI and the folk singers of the 1940s and 1950s, I obtained the more substantial files on Guthrie—records totaling 447 pages— that were maintained by the New York and Los Angeles FBI field offices. These newly disclosed files offer chilling new examples of the US government’s history of suppressing left-wing artists and intellectuals.

Guthrie and the Communist Party

Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, and before becoming an artist, Guthrie made his living, among other things, as a sign painter, laborer and fortune-teller. After his mother was diagnosed with the genetic neurological disease Huntington’s Chorea and committed to a state psychiatric institution, where she would later die, Guthrie left Oklahoma to move to California, where he traveled amid the migrant camps of his fellow Oklahomans and encountered the political and cultural scene in Los Angeles. It was in California that Guthrie met and became radicalized by the Communist Party.

The Bureau kept at least three files on Guthrie: A headquarters file (HQ file), a New York field office file and a Los Angeles field office file. By the FBI’s own admission, it destroyed records on him in 1988 — and none of the material I obtained deals with his time in the Army. Likewise, there is no mention of his time in the Merchant Marine, even though the FBI apparently played a role in revoking his seaman’s papers because of an article he published in the communist, Sunday Worker. That said, the HQ file — which until now was the only source available to biographers and historians — begins in 1941, with correspondence in relation to his work on for the Department of the Interior, where Guthrie wrote some of his most beloved songs and narrated a film promoting the government’s hydroelectric project in Oregon. In those reports, it is suggested he was a Communist Party member in California, but because the work for the government was temporary, the file does not show that an investigation was launched. Then, after one other report about a wartime benefit Guthrie played, the HQ file jumps to 1950.

However, the HQ file is not the definitive source for assessing the FBI’s view of Guthrie. A fuller picture comes through in the files I recently obtained, which were compiled in the relevant field offices, particularly New York. For example, Guthrie’s New York file opens in 1947 with pictures of him taken by an informant at a fundraiser he played in Spokane, Washington. The first is a posed photo of Guthrie holding his guitar with the iconic “This Machine Kills Fascists” handwritten on the instrument; the other is of him standing beside William Cumming, whom the Bureau identifies as the former chairman of the Spokane Section of the Communist Party.

The New York file also contains a copy of a letter Guthrie sent to Judge Harold L. Medina, asking him to let Communist Party leader William Z. Foster serve as his own attorney in the trial of the 12 Communists indicted (and later convicted) in the infamous Smith Act trial of 1949. The FBI obtained the letter from the judge overseeing the trial, who dutifully forwarded it to the Bureau.

Taken together, the items in the New York file offer a more complete picture of the attention being paid to Guthrie before he was added to the Bureau’s Security Index — the list that marked one for preventative detention in the event of a “national emergency” such as war or another crisis — a list that would include at points figures, such as Pete Seeger, James Forman and Martin Luther King Jr.

Factionalist Sabotage Group

Guthrie landed on the FBI Security Index because of his association with two veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Americans who fought against fascist Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War). The FBI claims the two veterans, George Haggerty and Ramón Durem, were part of a sabotage group ready to support the Soviet Union in the event of war between the USSR and the US.

While Guthrie’s association with the two was enough to land him on the Security Index, the Bureau had evidence early on that there was likely nothing to this. As a report in his HQ file notes, “Two informants who were closely associated with GUTHRIE during April and May 1950, advised that he personally has never, in their presence, made any statement relative to sabotage.” In fact, the Bureau would later report that even the group’s so-called leader hardly fit their suspicions. As they wrote in a report in June 16, 1953:

These informants advised that DUREM’s associates and activities reflect no apparent intention of organizing such a group as described above, and that he has personally evidenced strong indifference toward international affairs as well as to all Communist line activities.

Despite this, the “Factionalist Sabotage Group” remained a recurring reference in Guthrie’s file — and justification for his potential detention.

A Pretext Call

After the entries relative to the Factionalist Sabotage Group, the FBI’s attention to Guthrie took a surreal turn. No longer were they pursuing a robust man with boundless energy. By 1952, Woody Guthrie was becoming very sick. He was plagued by health issues, and his friends worried he might be an alcoholic. Yet, because of his inclusion on the Security Index, the Bureau kept track of his whereabouts. The following, from his New York file, is exemplary:

On 5/6/53 MARJORIE MAZIA was telephonically interviewed at the dancing school number [her business] under the pretext that writer had known WOODY GUTHRIE at Brooklyn State Hospital and was interested in how he was and would like to get in touch with him. MAZIA assumed that the writer [of the report] was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and advised that GUTHRIE was not in New York but was traveling around the country and that she heard from him from, time to time.

The FBI was adept at such methods, even writing an internal manual on the subject – the released version taking care to redact many of their methods. Regardless, one does need to acknowledge the manipulative cunning in their call to the wife of a deeply troubled man.

Case Closed?

The last substantial entry in Guthrie’s HQ file suggests removing him from the Security Index:

Subject is suffering from Huntington’s Chorea, a chronic neurological condition with occasional psychotic manifestations. It is a deteriorating disease with no known cure and is eventually fatal. A victim of this disease can live from five to twenty years and most patients have succumbed by the time they are fifty-five to sixty years old. Subject is forty-four years old…. In view of subject’s health status and the lack of reliable firsthand information reflecting [Communist Party] membership in the last five years, it is recommended subject’s [FBI Security Index] card be cancelled.

Leaving aside the cold-bloodedness of this passage — because Guthrie is ailing, on the way to dying, the agent feels it is safe to take him off the FBI Security Index — this was not the end of the government’s attention to Guthrie.

In looking at the background of this report, one learns that in 1955, the FBI was fine-tuning its detention list program. Both the FBI and the Justice Department, which managed the Security Index, had up to then ignored the more rigorous stipulations of the Congressional Emergency Detention Act of 1950. The FBI, however, also kept secret the full scope of its Security Index program from the DOJ. In 1955, they appear to have been trying to get their ducks in a row. According to the Church Committee, which investigated the Bureau in 1976, the FBI tightened its standards and removed names from the Security Index. By 1958, the names on the list decreased from 26,174 to 12,870. However, being removed from the Security Index did not mean being free from FBI scrutiny. As the Church Committee reported:

It kept the names of persons taken off the Security Index on a Communist Index, because the Bureau believed such persons remained “potential threats.” The secret Communist Index was renamed the Reserve Index in 1960 and expanded to include “influential” persons deemed likely to “aid subversive elements” in an emergency because of their “subversive associations and ideology.”

In Guthrie’s case, it was “recommended that a Communist Index card be prepared.” The details on the form calling for this are jarring, listing Guthrie’s residence as “Brooklyn State Hospital” and his employment as “Hospital Patient.” Guthrie was thus transferred from the Security Index, which marked him for detention if the situation arose, to the Communist Index, a list of those who bore watching. He appears to have remained on that list until 1959.

Meanwhile, by the early 1960s, Guthrie’s health was degenerating. In an email to Truthout, Guthrie biographer Will Kaufman described photos he viewed of Guthrie from that time, which clearly show the advanced stages of the musician’s Huntington’s Disease: “Some of the photos – never released to the public – are snapped in mid-paroxysm.”

Similarly, historian Ronald Cohen described Guthrie’s condition to Truthout as, “very incapacitated” with him “rarely leaving the hospital.”

Regardless, in 1960, another review of Guthrie was undertaken, this time investigating whether to transfer him to the Reserve Index – a list the Bureau established to take the place of the “Communist Index.” The FBI special agent looking into this concluded, “it is not felt that subject meets the standards for inclusion on the RI [Reserve Index], and for that reason it is suggested that his name be deleted therefrom.” There is, however, no evidence that the recommendation was followed. Not only is there no confirmatory documentation of his name being deleted, the cover sheet of Guthrie’s file, along with an entry dealing with his addition to the CI, are stamped “RCI.” More telling is the fact that reports of his activity continued to be added to the file — five years short of his succumbing to his illness.

Real and Potential Threats

In looking back at the FBI’s actions directed at Guthrie, it may be tempting to laugh off the time and energy the FBI spent surveilling a musician. Why, after all, would the government be worried about a folk singer? This, however, misses something important. As trivial as this seems — and leaving aside the sickening specter of targeting a desperately ill man — there was logic in what the Bureau did.

For the FBI and the elements of the power structure the Bureau represented, Guthrie was a threat in potential, someone who could conceivably reach millions. This would be an unacceptable situation. One need only witness the repression leveled against Paul Robeson in the late 1940s for evidence of this. Woody Guthrie, who at the time was nowhere near as popular as Robeson, is today seen as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century — he was indeed someone who might have reached a very large audience in a way that threatened the status quo. That his surveillance continued well after he became too ill to perform underscores the entrenched persistence of the repressive apparatus.

While today’s world is considerably different from the one Woody Guthrie inhabited, there is a continuity worthy of note. In the current moment, ugly reaction is still promoted at the highest levels of government, while the forces of protest and social justice are told to remain “civil” lest they be further marginalized and suppressed. The treatment of Guthrie was not an aberration; it was part of a repressive history that lives on in the actions of US intelligence agencies today.

Special thanks to Conor Gallagher for his insights and analysis of the FBI documents.

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