Woody Guthrie's Legacy
For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the birth of prolific protest troubadour Woody Guthrie. Born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s restless nature carried him across the United States, eventually becoming one of the country’s most beloved folk singers -- both in his time and today. Like many larger-than-life historical figures, however, Woody Guthrie’s legacy has been so severely sanitized that the man and meaning behind his songs are all but forgotten -- in the case of his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” even much of his own lyrics are often omitted. So let us take a look at the man himself, how he embodied his radical beliefs, and how he’s inspired generations of protest music.
As a young man, he traveled west to California as one of thousands of “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl and seeking agricultural work. Guthrie, always having been a musician, found work as a broadcast radio performer playing commercialized “hillbilly” and folk music. Some of his success came from the growing popularity of traditional folk songs and the romanticisation of the working class -- Guthrie’s background as an Okie and a troubadour lent a great deal of rural working class authenticity, despite his family’s middle-class background. Guthrie took advantage of this national fascination with “hillbillies” and other “traditional” rural folks to sing about the plight of fellow migrant workers and other working class issues -- giving voice to the voiceless. Many of these songs would later be collected and recorded for his first album Dust Bowl Ballads.
During this time, newscaster Ed Robbin introduced Guthrie to communist circles and became something of a political mentor to Guthrie. Unlike certain anarchist groups like the IWW, which had published their “Little Red Songbook” in 1909, many communist and socialist groups had been slow to adopt music as a tool for protest and forming unity. That attitude shifted shortly before Woody Guthrie entered the scene. Although never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, the ideology fit perfectly with Guthrie’s own personal politics and experiences as a migrant worker. After learning more, Guthrie openly supported communism, played benefit shows at leftist events, and even wrote a regular column in the communist newspaper People’s World, in which he gave social commentary with an exaggerated hillbilly dialect. Guthrie and his communist friends realized that, like with commercial folk music, Guthrie’s Okie reputation could lend a kind of homegrown American authenticity to the communist movement, as well.
At some point, he made enough money to send for his wife and children to join him in California, but after the signing of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939, Guthrie and Robbin were both fired for fear that they would spread Soviet propaganda. Guthrie moved his family back to Texas, but then himself moved up to New York City where he got in with the folk music scene there, achieving even more success on the radio and busking on the side. In 1940, Guthrie used his growing clout in the radio world to secure a regular CBS spot for his friend Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. “Lead Belly,” which helped bring Lead Belly back into popularity. Around this time, Woody Guthrie also met Pete Seeger at a benefit concert for farm workers organized by John Steinbeck, and the two became lifelong friends. Guthrie joined Seeger’s newly formed folk-protest group the Almanac Singers, first writing “peace” songs, and then moving on to anti-fascist songs after the surprise Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1939. After his divorce from his first wife, anti-fascism took on new meaning to Guthrie when he began working extensively with his second mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. He would come to be strongly influenced by Jewish traditional folk music, and he wrote many songs about Hanukkah and Jewish history in the 1940s.
Despite some of his personal flaws, Guthrie’s unwavering commitment to justice and the oppressed classes suffuses his immense repertoire. He never really stopped writing protest songs, even as his mental and physical health deteriorated -- in 1950, two years before he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, Guthrie wrote “Old Man Trump” a brief, unpublished ditty about his racist landlord, Fred Trump. Privately, he wrote about racist housing discrimination following WWII, and how landlords like Fred Trump gleefully enforced and profited from such policy. In one notebook, he imagined himself transforming the whites-only complex where he lived, all around him “a face of every bright color laffing and joshing in these old darkly weeperish empty shadowed windows,” and then calling out to a young African-American woman: “I welcome you here to live. I welcome you and your man both here to Beach Haven to love in any ways you please and to have some kind of a decent place to get pregnant in and to have your kids raised up in. I’m yelling out my own welcome to you.”
Perhaps due to his experiences as a migrant worker, Guthrie consistently saw kinship in other peoples’ struggles for justice and liberation. His unapologetically radical politics inspired countless other musicians to use their songs in protest -- most notably Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Tom Paxton, and so many more. People's Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle, which began here at VPT, continues that tradition of protest music. Indeed, Guthrie literally wrote the words “this machine kills fascists” prominently on his guitar -- to Woody Guthrie, music was more than mere self-expression. Music could do things to people: open hearts, change minds, deepen understanding. And due to his Okie-folksy reputation and the cultural trends of the time, Guthrie leveraged his influence to support certain causes in ways even many other popular musicians could not. Woody Guthrie showed us in his brief time on Earth the enduring power of music to inspire and change people, even whole societies -- and how it can start with just one person.
Let us leave you this week with this, the commonly-omitted verses of Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land is Your Land”:
As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
Galyean, Crystal. “This Machine kills Fascists.” https://ushistoryscene.com/article/woody-guthrie/
Guthrie, Woody. “Ear Players.” Common Ground, Spring 1942, pp. 32-43.
“Happy Joyous Hanukkah & Wonder Wheel.” https://www.woodyguthrie.org/merchandise/klezmatics.htm
Kaufman, Will. “Woody Guthrie, ‘Old Man Trump’ and a real estate empire’s racist foundations.” https://theconversation.com/woody-guthrie-old-man-trump-and-a-real-estate-empires-racist-foundations-53026
“This Land Is Your Land.” https://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/This_Land.htm
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