Class warrior with a guitar
ONE of America’s best-kept secrets is a radical tradition stretching back into the 19th century.
Some of its most potent exponents thrived in the first half of the 20th century, although they were compelled to do so in the face of corporate power that reached tyrannical proportions and did not shy away from fascist methods.
Most Americans today would not be able to say much about Joseph Hillstrom, a Swedish immigrant better known as Joe Hill who a century ago contributed a great deal to the proletarian cause as a songwriter and activist for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the Wobblies). He was executed in 1915 on a trumped-up murder charge.
A dozen years later, the Italian immigrants Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were eliminated by the state, chiefly on account of their efficacy as anarchist activists.
More than two decades hence, a music entrepreneur by the name of Moses Asch commissioned a song cycle about Sacco and Vanzetti. The eventual result was an album still venerated in radical circles. It was primarily the work of Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie, whose birth centenary is being marked on Saturday, has long been venerated as a groundbreaking folk singer, but usually with his radical edges chiselled off.
A case in point is his best-known song, This Land is Your Land, celebrated as a patriotic hymn that even former president Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have commended as a potential national anthem.
Until recently, though, it wasn’t exactly common knowledge that Guthrie wrote this song as a riposte to Irving Berlin’s anodyne God Bless America, and that it had a sting in the tail that was left out of the version that appeared in school songbooks.
It was restored more or less to its original form when Pete Seeger — a close friend and collaborator of Guthrie’s — performed it alongside Bruce Springsteen at the Washington Memorial on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.
Nobody, he told me in an interview shortly afterwards, had said he couldn’t sing the complete version, which included the verses: “Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ A sign was painted, said: Private Property/ But on the back side it didn’t say nothing/ This land was made for you and me” and “One bright morning by the shadow of the steeple/ By the relief office I saw my people/ As they stood hungry. I stood there wondering if/ This land was made for you and me.”
It’s not hard to see why the song cannot properly be appreciated without the final verse quoted above, yet for decades it was performed exclusively in its bowdlerised version.
There has, however, always been plenty of corroborating evidence that Guthrie wasn’t exactly enamoured of capitalism. It wasn’t exactly a personal grudge, though.
Guthrie, Oklahoma-born and Texas-reared, came of age during the Great Depression, but it wasn’t so much his own deprivation that radicalised him as the suffering of others, not least the so-called dustbowl refugees who fled states such as Oklahoma during the 1930s and were exploited to within an inch of their lives wherever they went.
Guthrie rode freight trains across the US and, following a sojourn in Los Angeles during which he hosted a radio show on a progressive channel and began contributing a regular column to a Communist Party newspaper — he liked to refer to The Sunday Worker as ‘The Sabbath Employee’ — he travelled east at the behest of his friend Will Geer, an actor best remembered for his role as Grandpa in The Waltons, and ended up in New York in 1940.
His first commercial recording, Dust Bowl Ballads, included The Ballad of Tom Joad, a 17-verse summation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which ends with the protagonist proclaiming: “Wherever little children are hungry and cry,/ Wherever people ain’t free,/ Wherever men are fighting for their rights,/ That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma/ That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”
I Ain’t Got No Home, another song from those sessions, recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Springsteen and the English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, is held up by Bragg as a prime example of Guthrie’s persisting topicality. Another track that clearly falls in that category is The Jolly Banker (I’ll come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes/ Singin’ I’m a jolly banker, jolly banker am I”), and I’m Out to Get could well serve as a rallying cry for the Occupy movement.
Bragg is one among several artists who have in recent decades put music to dozens of the innumerable lyrics that Guthrie penned but was unable to record, not least because from the early 1950s he began showing clear symptoms of the degenerative hereditary disease Huntington’s chorea and was shortly thereafter hospitalised for the remainder of his life. He lived until 1967, but was never in a position to express himself on the American civil rights movement or the Vietnam War.
A part of his legacy lived on, though, not least in the early repertoire of Dylan, one of Guthrie’s most ardent acolytes, and more broadly through the likes of Seeger and the bunch of folksingers initially described as ‘Woody’s children’, as well through less obvious admirers such as John Lennon and Joe Strummer. A Guthrie renaissance of sorts followed his induction in 1988 into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence.Guthrie was always more than an exceptionally talented songwriter (Seeger credits him with “the genius of simplicity”) and singer. His prose, too, could be outstanding, and there’s much enduring merit in his cartoons and sketches. But, as the academic Will Kaufman underlines in the book American Radical, a proper appreciation of Guthrie cannot overlook his political inclinations.
His guitar was famously emblazoned with the slogan ‘This machine kills fascists’, but Guthrie’s battle cry wasn’t directed exclusively against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis: he opposed with equal vehemence the instigators of racial hatred and the perpetuators of socioeconomic inequality within the United States.
That’s a crucial component of the legacy of this extraordinary American, who once reputedly declared: “I ain’t necessarily a communist, but I’ve always been in the red.”