Woody Guthrie at 100: The Secret and the Fight
Commentary on Will Kaufman’s “Woody Guthrie: American Radical”
“I saw a big high wall there, that tried to stop me,
A great big sign there, said “Private Property,”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
That side was made for you and me.”
-- Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land
July 14th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie: protest singer; subversive; agitator; working class hero; radio host; organizer; educator; pro-union all-American; anti-imperialist; womanizer; freedom fighter; class warrior; peace activist; anti-fascist; WWII Merchant Marine and soldier; Dust Bowl troubadour; political campaigner (for Henry Wallace); and victim of both anti-communist Witch Hunts and Huntington’s disease. The disease shut down his productive life in the mid-1950s (after barely reaching age 40) and killed him in 1967.
Guthrie’s good friend and comrade Ed Robbin wrote: “Woody believed that what is important is the struggle of the working people to win back the earth, which is rightfully theirs. He believed that people should love one another, and organize into one big union. That’s the way he saw politics….” Woody added that the one thing that will overcome fear and greed is love, and that, he advised, is the secret beyond which we will not educate ourselves.
The Great Depression of the 1930s produced a scandalous amount of poverty, despair, joblessness, misery, repression, and suffering in the midst of great wealth, plenty, and power. As one consequence, an enormous amount of social protest arose in the United States, much of it centered in labor unions (e.g. the CIO), and much of it driven by radical political organizations comprised of socialists, anarchists and communists. Along with the social protest there was an eruption of protest music. It was out of this milieu that Woody Guthrie, one of the great folk/protest singers in US history emerged and contributed.
Will Kaufman’s book Woody Guthrie: American Radical (2011: University of Illinois Press) is a vital contribution not only for the history it offers, and the nuanced and profound interpretations of Guthrie’s music, writings, and life it provides, but also because of the radical inspiration it ministers during a darkly troubling time in US history when a resolute enflaming of the spirits of resistance and rebellion is urgently needed. Woody’s radicalism, among other things, worked to connect economic injustice to militarism and to the various forms of inequality and oppression concomitant with both. One of Woody’s goals was, through multiple forms of expression, to assist people in understanding the root causes of global militarism and violence, along with global economic injustice and inequality by critically analyzing and singing about the nature of the causal beast: capitalism, a system “that earned his undying hatred” (p. 204).
Woody believed that US society had to be positively transformed and that meant moving beyond capitalism and into a world in which conditions nurtured and nourished fulfilling and flourishing human lives, individually and collectively. To his friend Moe Asch Woody wrote, criticizing the rapacious, exploitative and destructive beast:
“This is the system [i.e. capitalism] I would like to see die out. It killed several members of my family, it gassed several and shell shocked several more in the last world war, and in this world war just past, it scattered lots more. It drove families of my relatives and friends by the hundreds of thousands to wander more homeless than dogs and to live less welcome than hogs, sheep, or cattle. This is the system I started out to expose by every conceivable way that I could think of with songs and with ballads, and even with poems, stories, newspaper articles, even by humor by fun, by nonsense, ridicule and by any other way I could lay hold on” (pp. 124-125)
Commonism was made for you and me
Woody was a stunningly prolific composer of songs, poetry, essays, anecdotes, and commentaries informed by radical traditions of Christian socialism, US populism, Industrial Workers of the World-ism, and communism. His copious output was finally slowed and stopped when the impact of Huntington’s disease in the mid-1950s made it impossible to write, sing, or play. Guthrie saw a common thread running from Jesus to communism in that both supported the common people and preached peace, justice, fraternity, freedom from want, and equality. It was the struggles of the common people in the midst of great hardship, poverty, exploitation, and despair, combined with his immersion in leftist (largely communist) political currents that inspired and directed much of his music and writing (p. 28).
Woody sometimes described his philosophy as “commonism” where the fruits of the earth are managed in common and utilized for the common good, and not under the control by the few, for the interest of the few, and at the expense of the many. It was a substantive form of social equality, democracy, and freedom that he longed and worked for. That for Woody was “the freedom highway” about which he sang in “This Land is Your Land.”
Woody abides because he wrote honest songs about harsh social realities but would not sing songs that made people feel they were “born to lose” or hopeless. He worked to write songs that proved that “this world is our world” and we can collectively work in meaningful and productive ways in making it better for all. That again is “commonism.” “Commonism,” he said, follows “the Christian way” and means a world “where there shall be no want among you.”
Woody the subversive and rarely-compromising protest singer opened up important spaces and inspiration for radical singers who followed including Pete Seeger (called a “dialectical Leadbelly” by Guthrie), Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Utah Phillips, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, The Dropkick Murphys, Tom Morello, Steve Earle, The Street Dogs, etc., (pp. 183-204) some of whom took on Woody’s more radical political and economic commitments and revelations. He wrote roughly 3,000 songs, two autobiographies (Bound for Glory and Seeds of Man), 174 “Woody Sez” columns for the West Coast Communist Party newspaper “The People’s Daily World,” and voluminous journals. He was deeply committed to the struggle to free working people from exploitation and oppression under capital’s domination; he had a passionate faith in the individual along with a profound concern for the common good. In Ry Cooder’s words, much of Woody’s music is “about the revolt against the institutional order” (p. 202). He likened capital’s tyranny and abuse of working people to fascism. To his second wife Marjorie he wrote:
“the little things around that add up to make the bigger fights, like killing Jim Grow, Poll Tax, Race discrimination, crook laws and lawyers, crooked profit makers and profit worshippers, people that put making money ahead of being a human, or people that want to live in idle laziness on the sweat of working peoples backs, all of this, that adds up to the biggest fight of all, the fight against the Axis” (pp. 151-152)
About his disgust in the face of fascism he also wrote to Marjorie that he was driven by “a personal hate so strong that it makes you want to kill in order to keep the people you love from being slaves…unless love has got this hate, it is not love at all” (p. 96). His hope in the struggle to overcome various forms of fascism (of which he included capitalism and racism) is reflected in his song “All You Fascists:”
I’m going into this battle
And take my union gun
We’ll end this world of slavery
Before this battle’s won
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose!
He learned (in his late 20s) to despise racism and was outspoken in opposition to white supremacy and bigotry. He penned numerous songs addressing the ugliness of racist injustice and indignity, including the anti-lynching classic “Slipknot,” where he sings about a black father: “…they hung him from a pole, shot him full of holes, and left him there to rot on a hangknot.” The song was dedicated “to the many negro mothers, fathers, and sons alike, that was lynched and hanged under the bridge of the Canadian River, seven miles south of Okemah, Okla., [Woody’s birthplace], and to the day when such will be no more” (p. 147). As was often the case, Woody created new versions of his tunes. In this case, “Slipknot” later became a song about “Death Row.”
He supported the idea of the One Big Union (an idea he borrowed from the “Industrial Workers of the World,” a.k.a. “the singing union” a.k.a. “The Wobblies,” from whom Woody also learned many pro-worker/anti-capitalist protest songs). He carried in his pocket a copy of the Wobblies’ “Little Red Songbook” to “Fan the Flames of Discontent” (p. 14). He hoped, along with Pete Seeger, to create a national union of radical singers “whose mission would be to inspire other unions through music and performance” (p. 119). As Seeger put it, “We could make a singing labor movement, take up where Joe Hill (the Wobbly bard) left off, and carry the tradition on” (p. 119). This led to the formation of People’s Songs in 1946, that produced a bulletin, a songbook, a booking agency, the Hootenany record label, and the magazine Sing Out!, etc. Guthrie wrote “We are trying to rid this world of capitalism amongst artists, performers, and every other place…I believe in my soul that ‘People’s Songs” will help a lot” (p. 122). Unfortunately, the project was largely crushed by the corrosive anti-communism that swept the land.
Woody’s anti-fascism extended beyond his hatred of Nazis and was rooted in an expanded social perspective through which a One Big Union world of solidarity, freedom, and equality would fight against fascism in all of its forms, whether Nazis, scabs breaking unions, capitalist bosses breaking workers, lynch mobs, vigilantes, or the KKK. He argued that it was the responsibility of the artist to “root out, expose, and kill out the fascist enemy everywhere, at home and abroad” (p. 93). Hence, his guitars were typically emblazoned with the phrase: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” He experienced all too many cases of racist vileness when accompanying black comrades Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Paul Robeson to believe that fascism was only a foreign enemy. One of the most revolting examples occurred with Robeson in 1949 at the infamous Peekskill Concert/riots when white supremacists and anti-communists launched brutal and bloody attacks against performers and concert-goers while police observed passively.
It must be noted that Woody “traveled a long road from the casual, thoughtless racism of his youth, having been painfully educated into [the horrors of racism while possessing] a capacity for [critical self-reflection, a willingness to change], greater wisdom and racial empathy…”
Kaufman notes that Woody discovered that “Racists are not born, but made; and they can be unmade” (p. 165). The combination of racist oppression and communist repression in the US led Guthrie to write: “Fascism is…closer to you than I can make you see. I’m trying to wake you up to tell you that you’re sleeping with something ten times more dangerous than a poison fang snake in your bed.” The war against fascism, Woody said “is far from won,” and “fascism is closer than I can make you see” -- as it remains. (p. 158).
He was both an ardent advocate for peace and an enthusiastic supporter of war against fascism. He loved his country but hated the injustices and inequalities rooted in the exploitative, alienating, and oppressive structural imperatives of capitalism and the poisonous racist violence that regularly erupted, along with systemic racist discrimination and injustice. Guthrie imagined the power of the Allied armies employed to liberate “dispossessed African Americans and Mexicans, and all other victims of racism, a force that ‘will settle the score once and for all, of all kinds of race-hate, and it will give everybody their job doing what they can do best, time for learning, time for rest, and time for fun and singing…nobody can make a family live like rats in a filthy dump; nobody can toss a family of kids out onto the streets for the rent” (p. 152). Pete Seeger reports that when the FBI visited Woody he improvised a song for them: “They asked if I’d fight for my country; to the FBI I answered ‘yea;’ I will point a gun for my country but…I won’t guarantee you which way.”
With all of that one might argue that Woody Guthrie could provide the soundtrack for current social struggles and movements, including the Occupy Wall Street movement that like Jesus, Marx, and Woody, wants to expel the money changers from “the temple.” He called Wall Street speculators “rattlesnakes,” and said in one of his columns that Wall Street is a place where "the workers get worked on an the reapers get reaped--and the farmers get plowed under." During the Henry Wallace presidential campaign in 1948 Woody could be heard singing “We are building one big union, the people of this land, we are black and white together, the people of this land” (p. 138). In other words, in the one big union, the people of this land will no longer be worked, reaped and plowed under.
A good deal of his music sounds as though it could have been written today. “Deportee” for example, captures vividly and hauntingly the plight of immigrant labor. He sings “My father’s own father waded these waters, they took all the money he made in his life; my brothers and sisters come to work in the fruit trees, they rode on that truck, ‘til they took down and died.” While Woody’s continuing relevance says something positive about the power of his perceptive, creative, hopeful genius, as well as the lasting power of his songs, it is also profoundly troubling given that so much of the repression, injustice, inequality, hardship, violence, exploitation, war, racism, and unnecessary human suffering about which he wrote and sang still persists (and worsens). The US Census Bureau, for example, recently reported that close to 50% of people in the US live in or near poverty[i] in the wake of the Great Recession while extreme poverty (people living on less than two dollars a day) has doubled in the last fifteen years. 2.8 million US children live in extreme poverty.[ii] Meanwhile, corporations make record profits. The richest 400 individuals saw their income increase 650% and their “capital gains haul” increase by 1,200% between 1992 and 2007.[iii] Wages for workers essentially stagnated during the same period.
The Freedom Highway
Woody’s most famous song, This Land is Your Land is not a paean to romantic on-the-road individualism as is frequently suggested. Such an interpretation leaves behind Woody’s radicalism, explored so powerfully in Kaufman’s book. The song, arguably, was written in response to what Woody saw as Irving Berlin’s jingoistic otherworldly nationalistic anthem “God Bless America.” Woody was interested in the “otherworldly” but of a different sort, i.e. the better “other world” (i.e. socialism) that people should be working to create to replace the current abomination under capitalism. For Woody, “there could be no unearthly solution to earthly problems” (p. 29). He believed that freedom is not something that can be imposed or handed down from above by political, economic, or military elites, or by religious saviors, but something that only comes through organized struggles of working people winning freedom for humanity. Woody noted, “If there were to be a heaven on earth, it was human labor that would build it” (p. 29).
This Land is Your Land is often referred to as “the second national anthem,” both by those who do and do not understand how much it is fundamentally a politically radical protest song directed to inspire “fellow workers.” It can be interpreted properly when one understands that when Woody sings “this land is made for you and me,” he is addressing the working people of the country, the potential One Big Union, the folks who built the country, not the anti-democratic elite minority ownership class who get “fat” on the labor of workers. Woody sings in “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “As I look around, it’s very plain to see, this wide and wicked world is crazy as can be; the banking man is rich, and the workin’ [folks] is poor; I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.” In other words, it is “crazy” because those who carry out the labor to make the country run, “…from California to the New York Islands,” are poor, while those who contribute no real meaningful labor, but exploit wealth from the production of the workers, are rich. And it is crazy still.
“This Land is Your Land,” tells of dispossessed and starving people in a breadline and “…at the relief office” in the midst of plenty, glaring injustices that continue under US capitalism. It critiques the concept of “private property” (i.e. capital and its expansionary and exploitative imperatives) which is a “great high wall” preventing the kind of substantively free, just, equal and democratic society for which Woody hoped, worked, and sang. Crucially, Woody sings that the “great high wall there tried to stop me,” (intimating a failure) but on the other side the signs says “nothin,’” and that side is one for the common good of the common folk, i.e. “the freedom highway,” i.e. socialism, “made for you and me.”
Woody wanted to break down the great high walls of inequality, indignity, and injustice and that is one reason “antiracism was [for him] inextricably linked to the fight against capitalism” and why “he made the connection between the two explicit…throughout his career.”[iv] His hope was that the working people of the world could and would create a world rooted in humanized solidarity, justice, democracy, freedom, and respect for our common, yet individuated, humanity. When the song asks the question “Is this land made for you and me?” the intimated answer is “With so much inequality you cannot have democracy or humanized solidarity, and with so much inequality those with power will make decisions in their interests not the interests of the people, so under the current arrangements it is not run in the interest of the many, but in the interests the few,” i.e. the owners and not the workers, the 1% at the expense of the 99%.
In other words, it is NOT made for you and me under the current arrangement but it should be and will be through ongoing struggle when “the workers organize as a class and take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth.”[v] When Woody sings “and all around me, a voice was calling, this land was made for you and me,” it is the voice of the working people, from the “wheat fields waving,” to the “diamond deserts” to the fog shrouded coasts, to which he refers. One might even hear an echo of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality: “the fruits of our labor belong to us; the fruits of the earth belong to everyone; the earth itself belongs to no one.” The song becomes a defiant anthem of resistance to tyranny, inequality, and injustice when it says “Nobody living can ever stop me, as I go walking that freedom highway.” And then adds: “nobody living can make me turn back…” For Woody, “the freedom highway,” meant a society beyond the travesties of inequality, indignity, and injustice under capitalism, and that society was a socialist society strongly grounded in Christian traditions of care, compassion, and concern, and communist traditions of humanized solidarity, mutual support, and substantive democracy.
Kaufman tells us that “Woody Guthrie’s radical activism was once common knowledge” among those conscious of the widespread and spirited “progressive culture that predated” the Witch Hunt years under the House Un-American Activities Committee. Much of Woody’s radical commitments were erased and he was then re-appropriated as an iconoclastic, non-conformist individualist who took off down the freedom highway in the manner of a beatnik “flipping the bird” at the system (an image that appealed to the depoliticized wing of Sixties culture, as well as the powerful who work to co-opt all things revolutionary).
The year of his death he received a citation from the Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall telling Woody “you sang from the heart of America [about]…the wonder that it holds.” Irwin Silber lamented “They’re taking a revolutionary and turning him into a conservationist.” One would guess Udall was unaware that Woody wrote for the communist Daily Worker, that Woody was offended that working people “had to listen to the rich man songs” (p. xxiii), or that Woody wrote a song about Jesus Christ which included the militant lines: “When the love of the poor shall turn into hate/and the patience of the workers gives way/Twould be better for you rich if you’d never been born/for you have laid Jesus Christ in his grave.” Robert Kennedy, a former aide to communist hater and red-baiter supreme Senator Joseph McCarthy, sent a letter to Woody in 1967 calling him “one of the finest and most authentic artists our nation has ever produced.” By the 1990s, Woody’s radicalism had been sufficiently stifled that he adorned a postage stamp. It led Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, to proclaim: “For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat.”
Conclusion: the last free place in America
You have robbed my family and my people,
My Holy Bible says we are equal,
Your money is the root of all our evil,
I know the poor folk will win this world.”
-- Woody Guthrie, Union Maid #1
Woody dedicated his work to denouncing injustice, indignity, and inequality, while also announcing the possibilities for a better world. That may be his most important lesson, i.e. we must learn to be honestly critical, while acting in ways that are justly constructive. We must work to understand the world and use that understanding to work and struggle to create a better world.
He demonstrated how a combination of realism, seen and heard as the need to look honestly at harsh realities without falling into cynicism or fatalism, and vision, seen and heard as the need to see the light of potential transformations immanent in the present, informs the fullness and revolutionary potential of good protest music.
Woody’s protest music was willing to stare in the face of, reflect upon and point fingers at the worst conditions because he knew that doing so is part of the struggle for overcoming such conditions. Woody’s protest music is too down-to-earth to be blinded by idealism, but too idealistic to fall victim to pessimism and despair suggested by dismal and sordid realities. In short, Woody understood well the contingent nature of reality and visions, captured in this paraphrase from Yip Harburg’s classic “Over the Rainbow:” “The dreams that we dare to dream, really [might] come true.” In short, in Guthrie’s hands, protest music always learns and always teaches; always reflects and always envisions; always shatters and always builds.
Kaufman reminds us that “Woody Guthrie spent his life on the warpath—against poverty, political oppression, censorship, capitalism, fascism, racism, and, ultimately, war itself (p. xxv). The “warpath” brought him to the attention of various “un-American activities committees.” The reason for the attention was summed up clearly by California State Senator Jack Tenny. Woody was a threat because he wrote “songs for the workers” (p. 134). In modern terminology he wrote “songs for the 99%.” In other words, Woody Guthrie promoted substantive democracy and was thus seen as a threat, i.e. “un-American,” a point that makes one re-evaluate what we might really mean by “American.” He wrote in the face of the decline of labor militancy in the 1950s: “Everything is a part of the conflict between the boss man and the work hand” (p. 132). Sadly, he spent most of the last fourteen years of his life in various institutions as Huntington’s disease (the same disease that killed his mother) increasingly ravaged his body (he was formally diagnosed in 1952 at the age of 40, though manifestations of the disease were present several years earlier).
In 1956, with anti-communist hysteria still percolating in the US Woody’s friends Harold Leventhal and Fred Hellerman visited him in the hospital and asked after him. Woody told them: “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m worried about how you boys are doing. Out there, if you guys say you’re communists, they’ll put you in jail. But in here, I can get up there and say I’m a communist and all they say is ‘Ah, he’s crazy.’ You know, this is the last free place in America.”
Woody said “Trouble is caused by…fear…and…greed [and] removed by one thing…love.” One might argue that Woody’s message of love is derived from his two favorite philosophers, Jesus and Marx, both of whom saw the spiritual grounded in feeding the hungry, tending to the infirmed, welcoming the immigrants, protecting the poor from the ravages of the rich, and in kicking-out the moneyed-folk from the temple.
In Woody’s classic “Pastures of Plenty,” he intones, “we’ll work in this fight, and we’ll fight ‘til we win.” In a world of growing want and grotesque inequalities of wealth, income, privilege and power (inequality that eradicates two things necessary for a decent society: meaningful democracy and humanized solidarity – both foundational in Woody’s fight), and foreboding environmental and military threats to the future, we would do well to follow Woody’s admonition: “fight ‘til we win.” The relevant fight is against tyranny in all of its ugly forms: fascism, capitalism, racism, militarism, imperialism, sexism, etc. It is the fight against oligarchy and for popular democracy in political and economic arenas; against injustice and for justice; against inequality and for substantive equality; against oppression and for freedom; against destruction and for creativity; against war and for peace; against exploitation and for dignity; against alienation/atomization and for the one big union. In “Two Good Men” Woody advises us to “everyday find some ways to fight, on the union side for the workers’ rights.”
We have not achieved Woody’s “freedom highway” where the scourges of poverty, hunger, exploitation, racism, tyranny and war are defeated…so the fight continues…
The “struggle of the working people to win back the earth” is directed toward constructing conditions that nurture and nourish the free self-development and expression of our full creative intellectual, imaginative and productive capacities, where the self-realization of each is the condition for the self-realization of all, and substantive equality is seen as a precondition for freedom. It is a world of social love where homeland is humanity, “a land made [by and] for you and me” where we operate “from the good of all↔for the good of all,” to quote Jose Marti.
So, for Woody, that form of mutually fulfilling and self-realizing social love “is the secret.” He’d call it socialism, or “commonism.” It is a secret past which he said “you will never educate yourself.” It is a “secret” Woody worked tirelessly and courageously to reveal and realize, and we would do well to listen…and act.
Viva Woody Guthrie!
doug morris, Ph.D. teaches in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, NM. email@example.com
[i] Associated Press (2012). USA Today. Online at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2011-12-15/poor-census-low-income/51944034/1
[ii] Pat Garofalo, “Extreme Poverty In The U.S. Has Doubled In The Last 15 Years.” Online at: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/03/06/438907/extreme-poverty-doubled-15-years/?mobile=nc
[iii] Derek Thompson (2012). “How the Richest People in America Got So Rich.” The Atlantic. Online at: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/richest-400-people-america-got-201519751.html
[iv] Scott Borchert, (2011). “Woody Guthrie: Redder than Remembered. Monthly Review. Online at: http://monthlyreview.org/2011/05/01/woody-guthrie-redder-than-remembered
[v] Preamble to the IWW Constitution. Online at: http://www.iww.org/en/culture/official/preamble.shtml