Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” Was About More Than an Outlaw

Woody Guthrie’s song about the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd begins with a story of Floyd getting into a fight.  Floyd gets upset that a deputy used vulgar language in front of Floyd’s wife. After Floyd “laid that deputy down,” he fled to the country where every crime was blamed on him. But Guthrie did not write the song to sing about an unfortunate event. He wrote it as a critique of society, not of a man.

The Underlying Subject of “Pretty Boy Floyd”

The key part of the song regarding Guthrie’s message is near the end.  Guthrie tells how Floyd helped strangers and gave money to struggling farmers.

The final verses are the most cutting and still relevant today in light of the worldwide financial problems and concerns raised by people such as within Occupy Wall Street. And the song’s final verse sums up much of Guthrie’s philosophy and his work.

But as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

As Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie sings in this performance of his father’s song, “Some will rob you with a six gun / And some with a fountain pen.”

At another time, Woody Guthrie explained, “[Y]ou know — a policeman will jest stand there an let a banker rob a farmer, or a finance man rob a workin’ man. But if a farmer robs a banker — you would have a hole dern army of cops out a shooting at him. Robbery is a chapter in etiquette.” (Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, p. 128)

Guthrie wrote “Pretty Boy Floyd” in March 1939, and many consider it among his finest songs. While it is not covered as often as some of Guthrie’s other songs, “Pretty Boy Floyd” has been played by Roger McGuinn, Kinky Friedman, Melanie (Safka), and others.

The Real Pretty Boy Floyd

When Guthrie wrote “Pretty Boy Floyd,” only five years had passed since Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd had died. The real Floyd was born on February 3, 1904.  And he was first arrested at the age of 18 for stealing money from a post office.

FLoyd later graduated to bigger crimes in several states.  He earned his nickname from the way a bank robbery witness described him. Although Floyd committed a number of crimes, Guthrie’s song correctly notes that Floyd probably was blamed for more than he did, including killings during a 1933 gunfight that became known as the “Kansas City Massacre.”

On October 22, 1934, as law enforcement officers pursued Floyd, he was killed in an apple orchard near East Liverpool, Ohio. Approximately 20,000 to 40,000 people attended Floyd’s funeral in Oklahoma.

Like all great folk songs, “Pretty Boy Floyd” has lived on as more than just a story about one person. And that is why we are celebrating Woody Guthrie.

{Woody at 100 is our continuing series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie in 1912. Check out our other posts on Guthrie too. }

What do you think of “Pretty Boy Floyd”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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