Today in labor history: Ode to a labor troubadour, Woody Guthrie

We pause now from the almost constant commentary on active politicians and political activism to render an ode to a labor troubadour: Woody Guthrie.

Don’t get us wrong: Guthrie, who was born in Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, was a political man, too. He authored a folksy, class-conscious and long-running column, “Woody Sez,” in the Daily Worker out of NYC and the West coast edition, the Peoples World, and was associated with the Communist Party from 1936 on – though whether he was a formal member is subject to debate.

But mostly he expressed his politics in his folk songs – about workers, fellow Okies, the down and out, and regular Americans.

And he wasn’t afraid to tackle the problems that workers and unionists faced, while bucking up their spirits, by singing about the people, you and me.

Guthrie, who is now honored nationwide, including by a U.S. postage stamp, is best known among the general population for his song “This Land Is Your Land.”

Everybody remembers its first verse, which ends “This land was made for you and me.” When you stop and think about it, that’s a political statement.

He’s singing the nation belongs not to the rich, but to the rest of us. Sound familiar? Now read the remaining verses of “This Land Is Your Land.” Those verses are never taught in school and rarely sung.

Woody’s out roaming on the highway, and he sees a “no trespassing” sign – the epitome of privilege and property during the Depression. He wrote “This Land” in 1940.

“But on the other side it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me,” Woody sings. And then he gets really radical. The next verse of “This Land” is about bread lines of the Depression, with the hungry and poor waiting by the relief office. That verse finishes with Woody asking a subversive question: “Is this land made for you and me?”

Consider the class implications of that, before you end with Woody’s defiant declaration that “Nobody living can ever stop me…This land was made for you and me.”

One recent review of Woody’s life noted he specifically wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a counter to the saccharine, unquestioning and shallow patriotism of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America. Note that that tune is now the theme song of the anti-worker Radical Right.

But wait, Woody wasn’t done yet.

His next big hit was “Union Maid. That song is as relevant today, in an era of union-busting “consultants,” labor law-breaking firms and off-shoring multinationals egged on by corporate financiers, as it was when he wrote it, just before World War II.

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Woody’s “goons, ginks and company finks” still exist. Among the modern goons are the hired security guards who beat a Detroit Newspaper Guild member into a coma during management-forced strike several years ago, and the tea partyites who assaulted a Service Employees member in St. Louis two years ago, breaking his arm.

We’re not sure who “ginks” are, but “company finks” are snitches.

And Woody’s “deputy sheriffs who made the raid” on the Union Maid and her allies are replaced, these days, by Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio and by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who not-so-coincidentally raid factories just when their Hispanic-named workers start an organizing drive.

And, of course, despite such intimidation, present-day “Union Maids” – more than 40 percent of all unionists – and union men, too, stand their ground, just as Woody sang.

About the only part of “Union Maid” that’s out of date is Woody’s urging the Union Maid to marry a Union Man and become a member of the Ladies Auxiliary. They’ll both be protected by the Union Card, he sings.

Somehow, we have the feeling that if Woody were alive today – he died in 1967 – he’d be singing “Union Maid” at protests at Walmarts, or on the state capitol lawn in Madison, Wis. And he’d change that last verse, too. (At least a couple of alternate versions with non-sexist messages have been popularized since Woody’s day.)

There are union balladeers now, and many are very good. But when it comes to rousing lyrics with a pro-union edge, few now – we would say none – can match the man from Okemah, Okla., Woody Guthrie.

So happy birthday, Woody. May your lyrics and your songs live forever!

Eric A. Gordon updated this article, originally published in PW on July 13, 2012.

Photo: Woody Guthrie’s first Daily Worker column. Peoples World archive at Tamiment Library.

 

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C.   Gruenberg has been editor-in-chief of PAI since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jarvis bureau chief for the Middletown NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for the Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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