Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
In October 1944, weekend entertainment options for Hartford residents were limited. A family might take in the fall foliage, or just as likely, gather around the radio and tune in to WDRC for an episode of Blondie or The Shadow. Possibly, they would listen to Kate Smith’s variety show, Jack Benny’s comedy sketches, or Edward R. Murrow’s news reports. But on one particular Sunday– October 8, 1944– Hartford families had the rare chance to hear folk legend Woody Guthrie appearing live at Bushnell Memorial Hall.
Guthrie was traveling with the “Roosevelt Bandwagon,” a troupe of performers who were drumming up support for Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential race against Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. The effort was conceived by the Communist Political Association as a broad, popular front effort to elect Roosevelt for a fourth term. Locally, the Roosevelt Bandwagon was sponsored by the United Labor Committee, an ad-hoc group of some of the city’s most active union and political leaders.
Woody Guthrie was a singer, songwriter, author and activist. He is now recognized as a premier chronicler of the Great Depression. Through his music he expressed the stories of America’s working and poor people’s fight for decent lives. But because his beliefs were labeled as radical, conservative opinion makers derided Woody as an “irresponsible hobo.” The negative press led to intimidation tactics. In one case, picketers with firecrackers and stink bombs disrupted the Bandwagon’s performance in Boston.
When the revue arrived in Hartford, it was met by extra details of police and plainclothes officers under the command of Chief Charles J. Hallissey. This didn’t deter 2,500 people from buying tickets to see Woody, the assorted jazz singers and modern dancers who took to the Bushnell stage that night. The evening was hosted by actor Will Geer and rounded out by an address from Florida Senator Claude Pepper. Although best known in later years as Grandpa Walton, Geer’s true calling was art with a progressive message, as he demonstrated in the classic labor movie Salt of the Earth.
Even though harassment and red-baiting dogged the concert tour, Woody Guthrie did not shy away from continuing to express his political views. On the contrary, he took pride in his politics and appreciated the audiences who shared them.
Fresh from his Boston trip, according to the biography by Joe Klein, Woody told the Bushnell crowd: “I don’t know how the mind of the people here in Hartford run, but all along the railroad tracks the trees are turning red.”