There is something unique about the commentary of a writer that cannot be easily explained. Some take to the pen and laptop to endlessly write their thoughts and feelings down, hoping for rapid validation of their ideas. In the era of social media, practically anyone with a blog can put their opinion to the masses, whether those same masses read it or not is another question.
There was an era where those who could display a certain flare with words had the ear of the masses. Generally speaking, only two mediums have captured the grip of the population in this way, reflecting the times. Authors and songwriters, whether in their lifetime or posthumously, their message becomes timeless if they hit a certain key. Woody Guthrie can be best described as the first true singer songwriter, writing hundreds of songs that best reflected the degradation of the 1930’s, the volatility of the 40’s, and the post war boom. Time may have passed; the world has changed to the point where few of us can comprehend life in the early 20th century. Yet through his songs a picture of those times has been etched into collective memory. Great times make great people and Woody is no exception, as an active communist who played for the CIO unions and championed the plight of the dust bowl refugee, sung about highlight of the new deal and the global effort exerted in the fight against fascism.
It was these events that contribute the vast majority of Woody’s songs, others comment on the life of outlaws in the Midwest, stories of the time and the odd children’s ballad. Woody Guthrie was my first introduction to folk music and at the age of 14 the first song I performed live was his famous repost to the national anthem of the United States, written by Irving Berlin, which Guthrie despised. ‘This Land is Your Land’, I would argue, better sums up the true history of United States. The world his music reflected was one of poverty, strife, war and intense political activity. Despite his involvement with the communist party, he was lucky to escape the McCarthy witch hunts, which his friend Pete Seeger was subject to. There is no doubt that Woody’s music shaped my character and political opinion.
Woody championed two attributes that the modern left in the US and Great Britain have lost: Patriotism and Work. Both are intrinsic to his life and his music. Socialism and communism, contrary to popular belief, are not preached from the pulpit: they are built up in times when capital fails the people it supposedly lifts out of poverty. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his songs, writings and cartoons. Today both are reviled and rejected outright. Patriotism is wholly conflated with nationalism and the differences, which are numerous, are rarely discussed. Work is synonymous with capitalist employment. There is no end of articles which reject all of these important distinctions and call for a world of post patriotism and post work. Yet, the differences are important to put forward. As Guthrie knew too well, patriotism is the achievement of the people of a particular nation, rather than embodying a particular set of characteristics and forcing the populous to act in a certain way.
Achievements like the Grand Coulee Dam (the original name of the Hoover damn) and the defeat of Nazi Germany, were the result of workers organising toward a common objective. The song “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” traced the steps of the ‘lost historical bum’ throughout the ages. You could almost say this was a song dedicated to the workers view of the world, tallying the stories of the bible right up to modern day, inserting the role of the labourer. Likewise, “A Better World A Comin” talked of the new world being conquered by struggle, the most poignant example being ‘out of marching out of battling you can hear the chains a rattling’. For Guthrie the USA is made great not by a monolithic sculpture to the purity of the American way of life, but the achievement of its people, all its people, from wherever they hailed. Within the confines of his most famous song, ‘This Land is Your Land’, two verses were omitted from the original version.
As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said “No trespassin'”
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me
It is this patriotism that shouldn’t be automatically associated with the nationalism of the far right, but should be held in opposition to them.
Our second topic, evident in Woody Guthrie’s discography, is the importance of work. The blues ‘Talking Hard Work” listed all the jobs he had done: other ballads he found and wrote himself talked of the conditions and achievements of workers in a time when their lives were considered forfeit and infinitely replaceable, when it was their efforts which kept the country going. During ‘The Ludlow Massacre’ of 1914 in Colorado, the aftermath of a strike to recognise the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) left 20 women and children dead at the hands of the state militia and company thugs. That and ‘the 1913 Massacre’ in Calumet Michigan, proved the point and produced two of Guthrie’s most iconic and saddening songs.
The 20’s and 30’s would go onto produce more backlashes by labourers in aid of union recognition and a fight for decent conditions. While the massacres where paid tribute, so were the accomplishments of the class; The Great Coulee Dam came out of the most progressive policy the US had ever put forward; The New Deal lifted dustbowl refugees out of their squalor and planned to fertilise parts of America ravaged by desertification. Woody wrote 28 songs in 30 days just about the Grand Coulee Dam, One song, ‘Roll On Columbia’, declared the monument the “mightiest thing ever built by man”. Work is not something which will cease simply because we abolish employment, it is the most fundamental thing humans have every done and nobody has managed to elucidate that fact more than Woody Guthrie. Like many artists he remains immortal, so long as his music is played around the world. His lyrics will continue to inspire and provoke thought. The road he rambled, the life he lived passed these two lessons onto me.