Woody Guthrie’s Fan Letter To John Cage and Alan Hovhaness (1947)

I’ve always felt a cer­tain close affin­i­ty with Woody Guthrie. Could be my admi­ra­tion for his unstint­ing working-man’s pol­i­tics or that he hails from my mother’s home state of Okla­homa. Those are strong appeals, and I sup­pose it’s all of that and more: Guthrie could carve out com­pact gran­ite sen­tences even Robert Frost would envy. If the let­ter above doesn’t con­vince you, read the man’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy. In the let­ter, the unapolo­getic work­ing-class folksing­ing Okie who embod­ied depres­sion-era authen­tic­i­ty writes to “Disc Com­pa­ny of Amer­i­ca” to enthuse over John Cage for his “over­haul of the fam­i­ly piano” and his “choked down odd and unusu­al kinds of things.”

Odd and unusu­al are two words that spring to mind when imag­in­ing Guthrie writ­ing a let­ter in praise of Cage. (He also prais­es Armen­ian com­pos­er Alan Hov­haness—Guthrie spells it “Hov­aness”). Writ­ten in 1947, it is the kind of text one wants to quote in its entire­ty. For­tu­nate­ly, we have the repro­duc­tion above, and you can read it for your­self. What isn’t repro­duced is the post­script, in which Guthrie wrote: “I need some­thing like this odd­strik­ing music to match the things I feel in my soul tonight.” He also wrote that that morn­ing, his wife, Mar­jorie, had “giv­en birth to a big 7‑pound boy”—Arlo.

Guthrie’s let­ter ref­er­ences a (now extreme­ly rare) two-disc set enti­tled Piano Com­po­si­tions by Alan Hov­haness and John Cage played by Maro Ajemi­an and Alan Hov­hanes, fea­tur­ing a hand-drawn cov­er by acclaimed jazz-record illus­tra­tor David Stone Mar­tinAccord­ing to LA Times music crit­ic Mark Swed, the Cage com­po­si­tion on Guthrie’s 78-rpm record was the pre­pared piano solos from Cage’s Amores, com­posed in 1943. Below, watch a per­for­mance of the “odd­strik­ing” Amores by Span­ish ensem­ble Neop­er­cusión.

Thanks to Tris­tan for point­ing us to this let­ter orig­i­nal­ly blogged over at Stool Pigeon.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (8)
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  • Timmy says:

    This is great and your research is amaz­ing!

  • Charles Amirkhanian says:

    This amaz­ing two-disc set changed my life. My father bought it for me ca. 1951 (I was 6) and I loved it right away. Con­tents are: Disc 1–Hovhaness Mihr, Part I; Mihr, Part II; Disc 2–Cage: Amores I & IV; Hov­haness Invo­ca­tions to Vahakn, IV & V. Pro­duc­er was George Avakian who had to sign his name in the Armen­ian alpha­bet since he was under con­tract to Colum­bia Records.

  • joehill says:


    Guthrie stayed at Topan­ga Canyon in L.A. with Will Greer & Har­ry Hay.

    Hay was a friend of Cage, and helped pro­duce Cage’s first con­cert at the San­ta Mon­i­ca Wom­en’s Club.

  • Elliott Hurwitt says:

    Wow, how amaz­ing! Beau­ti­ful piece of research and reveal­ing.

  • Mahasti says:

    Thank you for this post full of grace–Guthrie’s let­ter, your back­ground info, and Cage’s beau­ti­ful Amores. I wish Hov­ah­nes’s Mihr could have also been embed­ded.

  • michael says:

    This is a great post. So excit­ing to read and think about the for­ev­er noble and great Woody.

    Was­n’t Har­ry Hay one of the first Gay Rights advo­cates way back when? Woody real­ly met every­one,
    we sure could use him right about now.

  • Bill Henderson says:

    Even more so now eh? But clear­ly, read­ing the above, and know­ing so many feel the same, Woody IS here now. We need to use our­selves, some­how, to keep his/our spir­it alive and going out from us into the world.

    Thanks so much for this great post. I know very lit­tle of Woody Guthrie and had no idea that he had such amaz­ing taste in music. Won­der­ful!

  • Paul J. Stamler says:

    It’s worth point­ing out that the Disc Record Co. Woody refers in the let­ter is one of the two labels Moses Asch ran before he start­ed Folk­ways Records, Woody made a lot of record­ings for Moses Asch (which have sub­se­quent­ly been issued on Folk­ways and its suc­ces­sor, Smithsonian/Folkways). So it’s all a big fam­i­ly sto­ry.

    Asch was con­scious that he was help­ing cre­ate the avant garde in music. He record­ed Cage, as well as Guthrie, Lead Bel­ly and Pete Seeger, and some of the first records of elec­tron­ic music.

    It’s also worth remem­ber­ing that in the 1940s and 1950s, folk music was regard­ed as very avant garde. (John Cohen has writ­ten about this,) In 1956 Jean Ritchie put out “Car­ols for All Sea­sons”, and it fea­tured (along with Ritchie’s voice and moun­tain dul­cimer, some­in­stru­ments that were also con­sid­ered avant garde at the time, like the harp­si­chord. Yes, real­ly; the harp­si­chord was avant-garde- eso­teric in the 1950s, as was that weird long-hair stuff, baroque music.

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