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 precisely a century ago, on July 14, 1912, was a political man, too. But 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, now being honored with events nationwide, is best known among the general population for 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. This Land’s next verse 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 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.

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% 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 Wal-Marts, or on the state capitol lawn in Madison, Wis. And he’d change that last verse, too.

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 100th birthday, Woody. May your lyrics and your songs live forever.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.