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Woody Guthrie at 100

Ronald Radosh

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old this year, and for the entire year, celebrations and tribute concerts have been held not only in the United States but all through Europe. You can get the various details here.

But expect The New York Times to run the most left-wing, guilt-tripping contribution to his legacy in its Weekend section last Sunday, written by Lawrence Downes. Mr. Downes begins by noting that to attend the gala final concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., one has to buy tickets that range from $175.00 to $80.00. For a singer who in a good year may have earned $70 in one month — when he was employed by CBS to do a radio program — the price to hear people listen to his songs was something that would have infuriated him.

The publicity for the concert reads: “Through his unique music, words and style, Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.” To which I would say, sometimes. He came to attention by what is most likely his most outstanding work, The Dust Bowl Ballads, in which Guthrie chronicled the impact of the dust storms throughout the Southwest that drove thousands of poor farmers from Oklahoma and elsewhere to flee however they could to California and the Salinas Valley, where they could eke out a living picking crops.

No one who listens to these can doubt his talent, his humor, and his concern for those he knew well. “Talking’ Dust Bowl Blues” is filled with humor and irreverence, and although imitated by scores who wrote their own talking blues for years thereafter, nothing comes close to Woody’s originals.

But Mr. Downes’ concern is that there has been a “sentimental softening and warping of Woody’s reputation,” because the truth was that the “saintly folk hero” was really an “angry vigilante — a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser.” He complains that his most well-known song, “This Land is Your Land”, has been “truncated and misinterpreted,” because the “pan is off the flame.”

Mr. Downes is obviously referring to the last two verses, which Guthrie himself never sang — and that now both Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen regularly include — about how he saw a sign that said “Private property, no trespassing, but on the other side it said nothing, that side was made for you and me.”

Just don’t try to trespass on any of Bruce’s million-dollar properties — unless you want the police arriving and throwing you in the hoosegow, which Woody himself knew quite a lot about.

The point which escapes Mr. Downes is that today, the well-heeled and wealthy elites regularly pay good bucks to have their consciences assuaged, as they listen and recall their radical youth in the New Left and drive away in their Lexus to feel so good about themselves, before going to work the next day in their corporate offices and top-tier law firms. In their hearts, they’re still revolutionaries, but their pocketbooks show that only they can afford the price to listen to Woody’s songs in concert.

Mr. Downes is very angry. Woody’s son Arlo, himself a singer-songwriter who picked up his dad’s talent and is a much better musician than his father, is a subject of Mr. Downes’ anger. “Arlo,” he writes, “is a Republican; he endorsed Ron Paul in 2008.” I wrote about this first at the time, and Arlo responded with a comment in PJM’s comments page, pleased that others would learn how he felt about radical Islam (he’s against it) and Obamacare, which he also opposes. Arlo thinks for himself, and this independence is what irks Mr. Downes, who thinks he has some obligation to adopt his dad’s outworn politics.

Of course, Pete Seeger remains dependable, endorsing whatever horrendous far-left cause is announced, to which Mr. Downes says “bless him,” but Downes also complains that he is “very old.” What really makes him angry is that no one pays attention to Springsteen’s pedestrian new songs, and what is even worse, Chris Christie loves Bruce. Evidently, songs may be a weapon, as the comrades used to say, their fire dies stillborn. He doesn’t mention it, but evidently Paul Ryan loves the far-left band Rage Against the Machine, whose hero is Che Guevara, whom they call their fifth band member. This is a group that cut a CD some years back with Noam Chomsky speeches included and which they blasted to audiences during intermission. Perhaps Ryan, too, likes the beat and the melodies and like everyone else ignores the words.

And of course, Downes loves Ry Cooder, the brilliant guitarist who — since his trips to Cuba — has become even more ultra-left-wing and who has a new album coming out blasting “Mutt Romney.” Mr. Downes likes these “bitter” songs, because he claims “someone has to sing them.”

So yes, Guthrie was a Red, but what Mr. Downes and others don’t get is that Woody’s music, like all good music, transcends its origins. He may have written “This Land” because he didn’t like Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”, but it too has become –rightfully so — a patriotic anthem to all Americans precisely because it is not narrowly political. For some years, it was even sung at the Bradley Awards ceremonies, presented yearly at the same Kennedy Center where it will once again be sung.

As for Guthrie himself, contrary to those who say he was only “sympathetic” to the Communists, he was himself a card-carrying member.

The late Sis Cunningham and Gordon Freisen, who edited Broadside in the early ’60s, told me he was a member of the same Greenwich Village club as they were, and that he along with them regularly were assigned to sell The Daily Worker on street corners.

If you have any doubts, here’s what Woody himself wrote in an essay called “This Thing Called Socialism”:

The job to be done is to get this thing called socialism nailed and hammered up just as quick as we can. I believe this just as much as I believe my own name, and lots more. We've got to pay whatever it costs us to get socialism in here just as early as we can. This is that big job … Socialism is the only job worth wasting any time on or strength on. . . The biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life was back in 1936 the day that I joined hands with the Communist Party. I'll stick to my words, don't you worry your head one minutes about that.(my emphasis)

Joining up with the CPUSA is what, if I may be frank, ruined his later work. There are scores of artists assigned to writing music to the lyrics in Guthrie’s archives that he never made up tunes for. You can listen to some of them in the two CDs out a few years ago with Billy Bragg and others. Does anyone really think that a song about the Communist Stetson Kennedy or the attempt of the U.S. to deport a real Soviet agent, which Guthrie objects to, is a work of art or that anyone else would ever sing them?

Woody Guthrie detested fascism — but it never dawned on him that the Nazis whom he said introduced “fascist slavery” was also being introduced in Russia and Eastern Europe by the very Stalinist regimes he supported and always sang benefits for. In 1948, he joined up, along with Pete Seeger, in the campaign to elect Henry A. Wallace for president on the Progressive Party line, a party created secretly and run by the CPUSA. What infuriated him was that the songs written for the party were not those based on old gospel tunes, and instead were songs written by people who had no idea what regular folks found appealing. When he wrote “Reuben James” on the eve of the Second World War, it was to the melody of one of the Carter Family’s most famous and popular hits. When Wallace lost with not one single electoral college vote, Guthrie actually thought it was because the songs they sang did “not reach in and touch deep enough to cause the hand to push the C Row handles in that voting booth.” He was naïve enough to think, it seems, that songs really could make people into good Reds.

Guthrie — and on this point Mr. Downes is correct — believed that “the money holders” wanted to “think down the radical protestery of all shapes and forms of art,” and that hence they aid “senseless piles of money” to the “blabbery artists of social surrender who boil and skim the radical protest down to nothing.” He detested those he called “Capitalist-sponsored stars,” whom he argued “have found ways and formulas to squeeze the social good of their art way down below the Nothing (Zero) line.” He believed that if you wrote music “to sting, to paralyze, to deaden … the militant fighting forces of the labor movement,” then “your wages, commission, money fee, will rise.” You would get publicity, and “your trail will be covered by cameramen, fotografers, newsreelers, and the whole presence of a rising genius will be added to your name.”

Poor Woody Guthrie. He never expected to see the day when the newsmen, the photographers, the media as a whole would proclaim singers like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, and Ry Cooder geniuses because they are leftists, and although like all good millionaires and billionaires, they use their money as Bruce Springsteen does — to buy homes all over the world and race horses for his daughter to compete with. If Woody was alive, he at least would be honest, and would have squandered his money and given it to the CPUSA.

So go and honor Woody — he was in so many ways a bard of those who were dispossessed and down under in the years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and in his best works, he echoed their concerns and their lives. In his worst, he became a prisoner of the Communist movement he joined, who forced him to adopt political correctness on behalf of evil causes, and to write songs on their behalf better forgotten.

Remember this if you’re attending any of the concerts coming up. And if Tom Morello sings and I’m there, I’ll remain sitting, won’t applaud, and if you hear someone booing, it might just be me.

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