I have decided long ago that my songs and ballads would not get the hugs and kisses of the capitalistic “experts.”
– Woody Guthrie
Though the Left of the United States has always celebrated the arts, it initially tended to do so via the products of European socialists. It was not until the latter 1930s that cultural organizers and critics began to look closer at the home-grown songs, theater, poetry, dance and visual art that would define this nation’s creativity. It was only in this period that there was a diligent search for, in the words of Daily Worker writer Mike Gold, “a Communist Joe Hill.”
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., on July 14, 1912. His home was a musical one and he grew up listening to the local high-lonesome sound as well as the church music of both African Americans and whites. He was also moved by the customs, the dialects and the plight of the Native Americans living in his community. At a young age he began performing old-time and devotional songs, but he would, with the passage of time, become the prototypical protest singer. Guthrie, by virtue of his heritage and formidable skill, established the connection between pre-existing folk songs and one’s own contemporary issue-oriented topical music.
Woody was among the migrants who climbed out of the Dust Bowl, but he brought a series of original songs with him that catalogued the sights and emotions of the time that have since become legendary: “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” “I’m Blowin’ Down This Old Dusty Road,” and “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” among many others. Like many migrants, he eventually moved to California. However, instead of struggling in fruit orchards, he became a performer on radio where he played many of his Dust Bowl numbers as well as other songs that were humorous, sad, sweet and homey. And somehow in this mix there was one called “Mr. Tom Mooney Is Free,” his 1939 composition about the labor activist Mooney, a cause célèbre in Left circles, who’d been wrongly imprisoned for 22 years.
Woody’s song was a shock to Ed Robbin, a California Communist Party leader who had a radio show that aired just after Woody’s. Guthrie – lanky, back-woods, often unkempt – stood in sharp contrast to most Party cultural workers. So Robbin’s invitation to Woody to perform his song at the gathering to welcome Mooney home was not made without hesitation. Yet Woody soon became a Left celebrity in his own right.
Following several months of performing work for Party events and left-wing unions, Woody headed east (at the insistence of actor Will Geer, whom he performed with in California at so many Party-based functions). It has been well-documented that during this winter trip across country, via hitchhiking and boxcar-jumping, Guthrie wrote the prototype for his anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” Originally called “God Blessed America,” the song was a biting protest response to the smash hit Irving Berlin song, “God Bless America.”
Viewed by most as the model for summer camp sing-alongs, “This Land is Your Land” began its life in 1939 as Woody came to experience the lingering Great Depression in its overwhelming depth. Guthrie saw that at least one-third of the people (according to official figures), if not more, remained ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed.
The greatest irony was that the Irving Berlin hit blared from every roadside juke joint, every neighborhood tavern and every living room radio set. As Woody observed the destitute masses in the streets and on the railways, the need for a musical response grew within him. The song’s often bitter and sardonic verses told of the ravages of poverty, but also spoke of beauty of our nation. Woody wrote of a world that could be – should be – shared by all. Most notably, the song contained a bold stanza pointing toward socialism:
Was a big high wall there
that tried to stop me
A sign atop it
said ‘Private Property’
But on the other side
it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.
Though his activism has never been questioned, Guthrie’s formal connection to the Communist Party has long been debated. While some writers have stated that Woody was never an accepted member of the Communist Party, his daughter Nora (director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives) has reported that, indeed, he was.
Further, Sis Cunningham reported that the Almanac Singers, of which both she and Woody were members in the early ’40s, joined the Party together. Apparently, he held membership but was categorized as one of the Party’s cultural workers. Although they were an important part of organizing and outreach, some CP artists were not always that tightly organized into the Party’s structure. Woody wrote:
I drew pen sketches for the People’s World and learned all I could from the speeches and debates, forums, picnics, where famous labor leaders spoke. I heard William Z. Foster, Mother Bloor, [Elizabeth] Gurley Flynn, Blackie Myers. I heard most all of them and played my songs on their platforms.
In the period leading up to and during the Second World War, Woody’s songs were infused with a militant spirit of anti-fascism.
Woody was a mainstay in the New York City Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to working as a performer, he wrote a Daily Worker/People’s World column for many years, “Woody Sez,” and was known to volunteer as a sign and placard painter (actually, his first profession). While Guthrie’s reputation is often that of a cliché hobo singer, his personal writings, songs, and columns tell a vastly different story.
Woody Guthrie would go on to write a series of ballads about labor martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, a classic about undocumented Mexican migratory workers (“Deportee: The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”), songs and poems about the atom bomb, the homeless, oppressed women, several albums of thoughtful children’s songs, and a daring piece which spoke frankly of how Jesus Christ was a grave danger to the wealthy power structure of his time – and of ours.
By the middle 1950s, the effects of Huntington’s Chorea would steal Woody’s ability to make and perform music, but his legacy was already secured. He succumbed to the disease on Oct. 3, 1967.
Woody had dedicated his life to the cause of socialism and the role of the cultural worker. There has been no artist, before or since, more deserving of carrying a guitar adorned with the warning: “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
– John Pietaro (email@example.com)