Woody Guthrie, America's Merry Prankster

Kristin Lems


A “merry prankster” is a colorful person, real or legendary, who pokes fun at authority and the rich, powerful, and arrogant. The merry prankster appears small and powerless, but manages to outwit his opponents, often summing up the situation with witty one-liners — signal examples from medieval history and folklore are Mullah Nasreddin and Till Eugenspiel. In many ways, Woody Guthrie is an American merry prankster. Small in stature but large of intelligence, he used his wits, musical creativity, and people skills to defend the poor against the rich and powerful. He consistently made enemies of the privileged and those in authority, quitting and losing jobs, and he had to find clever ways to wriggle his way out of his problems, while always standing up for his beliefs and singing out boldly about them. This article situates Guthrie in the larger folkloric tradition of the “merry prankster,” using examples from history and folklore to make the case that Woody Guthrie’s life follows this tradition.


Woody Guthrie; merry prankster; trickster; Mullah Nasreddin; Nasreddin Hoca; Till Eugenspiel; folklore

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