Songs made for you and me

July 12, 2012

Nicole Colson tells the story of Woody Guthrie on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

THIS JULY 4, the "doodle" for the day on the Google home page was a graphic with the words "This land was made for you and me"--a reference to "This Land Is Your Land," the famous song by folksinger Woody Guthrie. Conservatives went--to put it mildly--nuts.

"Google chooses Communist-oriented 'This Land Is Your Land' July 4th theme," blared the conservative website Other conservatives expressed similar outrage about a "commie" songwriter being linked to the most "American" of holidays.

How can a song written more than 70 years ago still be so polarizing--and how can someone who was born 100 years ago this week still be so controversial? The answer is in the radical roots of Woody Guthrie's music.

WOODROW WILSON Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla. Woody's father Charley was a successful real estate man and a staunchly anti-socialist and pro-Jim Crow Democrat.

Woody learned to sing from his mother Nora--mainly traditional Scottish-Irish folk ballads and church hymns that would serve as inspiration and source material for him throughout his life.

Woody Guthrie, photographed in 1943
Woody Guthrie, photographed in 1943 (Al Aumuller)

The Guthrie family endured a series of tragedies during Woody's childhood. When Woody was a toddler, the family's home burned down. That, along with a post-oil-boom recession, devastated the family's finances. Woody's older sister Clara died in 1919 in a fire, and Woody's mother Nora began to deteriorate mentally due to Huntington's disease--a degenerative, hereditary and fatal neurological disorder that later killed Woody, too. Nora was sent to the state mental institution in Norman, Okla., and died in 1929.

Charley relocated the family to Pampa, Texas--a booming oil town in the Texas panhandle. It was here that Woody began putting his artistic talents to use, painting signs and cartoons for local drugstore windows. His uncle taught him how to play guitar and fiddle.

Despite the popular myth of Woody as an uneducated-but-folksy "hick," he read constantly, working his way through nearly every book in the Pampa public library--from psychology to Eastern religion to poetry. With little to keep him in Pampa, Woody began traveling. Leaving his first wife Mary behind, he headed out along Highway 66, through New Mexico, hustling painting jobs and spending the occasional night in jail when he was busted for vagrancy.

In 1937, he decided to look for work in California. Thumbing rides, Woody sang for his supper when he could and sometimes would swap his guitar for food. In Arizona, he found himself so hungry that he was reduced to begging for the first time--and was promptly turned away from every church he asked for work at. After being told there was "nothing for him" at one Catholic church, he later recalled, "I looked up at the cathedral, every single rock in it cost ten dollars to lay and ten to chop out, and I thought, 'Boy, you're right--there's nothing here for me.'"

Riding freight trains north through California, he was confronted with the viciousness of police and railroad security--and grotesque scenes of poverty contrasting with the natural beauty of the landscape. "I can't tell you how pretty this country did look to me," he wrote. "I can't tell you how ugly the cops looked, nor how ugly the jails looked, the hobo jungles, the shacktowns up and down the rivers, how dirty the Hoovervilles looked on the rim of the city garbage dump."

Eventually, Woody landed in Los Angeles where he began performing on progressive radio station KFVD. The experience began to shape his political consciousness. After casually introducing a harmonica solo over the air by its traditional name, "Run, Nigger, Run," Woody received a letter from a listener: "I am a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person, or person of any intelligence, uses that word over the radio today."

Woody apologized over the air and refused to play the piece again. He changed his language and became a committed anti-racist.

WOODY ALSO began to develop his voice as a songwriter, spending more time at the typewriter. His songs mixed his sense of humor with a growing sense of radical politics.

In one of his songbooks, he'd famously write: "This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085 for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission will be mighty good friends of ourn cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."

Most often, Woody set new words to traditional music, hymns or country tunes made famous by groups like the Carter Family. One such song was "I Ain't Got No Home," a tune modeled on the Carters' "I Can't Feel at Home in This World Anymore." This became one of Woody's Dust Bowl Ballads--a group of songs that told of the experience of Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and the Midwest who made their way to California during the Great Depression.

Woody's version begins, "I'm just a wandering worker" and then describes how "the police make it hard wherever I go." He explains that a "rich man took my home and drove me from my door." "Oh, the gamblin' man is rich and the workin' man is poor / and I ain't got no home in this world anymore," he finishes.

Instead of the promise of a reward in heaven, as the Carter Family song spoke of, Woody flipped the lyrics on their head by emphasizing the way in which the profit system victimized the poor.

In other songs, Woody's wicked sense of humor took center stage. In "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It's Been Good to Know You)," Woody presents different scenes set in a dust storm--something he experienced first-hand in Texas: people taking cover in their homes and passing the time; two sweethearts "sparking" in the dark; and a preacher who believes Armageddon is coming. Woody pokes particular fun at the preacher who "could not read a word of his text / and he folded his specs / and he took up collection."

The Dust Bowl Ballads, written in 1937-38 and recorded in 1940, spoke to a wave of refugees from the Midwest who had been promised that good jobs were waiting for them in California. As many as 1.25 million Americans were forced to leave their homes in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas to look for some way to make a living during the last years of the 1930s. But in the migrant camps of California, poverty, hunger and disease were the norm--with frequent outbreaks of smallpox, typhus and tuberculosis--along with the violence of police.

In 1938, Woody drifted around Northern California, working on a series of stories covering the plight of the "Okies" in California. He performed for migrant families camped by the Sacramento River and observed peaches rotting on trees because growers weren't hiring pickers--too much fruit on the market would drive prices down. During his travels, he met members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and learned about IWW songwriter Joe Hill, who was executed in 1915 for his labor activism.

In Kern County, where a cotton strike was in progress, he saw American Legion vigilantes attack picket lines, beating strikers with ax handles. Enraged, he immediately joined the pickets and began singing for the strikers at mass meetings. He eventually channeled his anger into the song "Vigilante Man," in which he describes being chased out into a rainy night by a vigilante. "Oh why," he asks, "does a vigilante man / carry that sawed-off shotgun in his hand? / Would he shoot his brother and sister down?"

BACK IN Los Angeles, Woody met Ed Robbin, a commentator for KFVD and reporter for the Communist Party (CP) newspaper on the West Coast, the People's Daily World.

Through Robbin, Woody met a number of CP members, including actor Will Geer (today mostly remembered for his role as "Grandpa Walton" on The Waltons). Geer and Guthrie became lifelong friends--Geer also introduced Woody to important figures on the left, including author John Steinbeck, who later summed up Woody by saying, "He is just a voice and a guitar...there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs that he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression."

When Woody suggested he write a column for the People's Daily World, Robbin sent the columns in to the paper--and to his surprise, they were accepted by the editors. For around seven months in 1939-40, the "Woody Sez" column appeared in the paper.

Woody deliberately used poor grammar and spelling in his columns. One typical one read:

Everywhere a poor feller looks, they is a Finance Co starin you right in th face. An the big banks is a keepin em in business so's they can give you four bits, an git back a dollar--an boost youre hours up an cut youre wages down, an give you a skinning ever time you turn a round, an salute the flag an call it freedom. [sic]

Despite his column for the CP paper, it remains unclear whether Guthrie ever officially joined the Communist Party. Will Geer would later insist that Woody "talked Marx, but he talked socialism, even more than communism...He was more of a Eugene Debs type. He certainly wasn't a Stalinist."

More recently, Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie answered today's right-wing critics by telling the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy that her father was "a commonist, not a Communist." The phrase is taken from one from Woody's journals, in which he quoted Biblical scripture to express his support for socialism: "To own everything in common. That's what the Bible says. Common means all of us. This is old 'Commonism.'"

While understandable, such protestations aren't entirely accurate. Despite a lack of consensus on whether Woody ever officially joined the CP, he remained largely supportive and uncritical of the U.S. CP during the many twists and turns of the "party line" before and after the Second World War--including supporting the Hitler-Stalin Pact that briefly made the Soviet Union allies with Nazi Germany. Woody also repeatedly expressed a fondness for Stalin--something he never renounced.

Despite this, it's important to understand that Woody saw the CP in particular, and socialism more generally, as an alternative to the viciousness and barbarism of capitalism that destroyed the lives of working people. Because of his interactions with rank-and-file CP members during strikes and organizing drives, Woody developed a deep and abiding respect for the party.

In a letter to his aunt in 1956, during the height of the McCarthyist Red Scare, he expressed solidarity with embattled CP members by explaining:

The big rich landlords, gambling lords, rulers and owners are cussing the Communists loud and long these days. The Communists have always been the hardest fighters for the trade unions, good wages, short hours, nursery schools, cleaner work shops, and the equal rights of every person of every color...So you can call me a Communist from here on.

WOODY BRISTLED against the patriotism and jingoism exploding in the U.S. as America's entrance into the Second World War approached. This anger set the stage for his most famous composition in February 1940: "This Land Is Your Land."

While today the song is largely considered a patriotic, if populist, vision of an ideal America, Guthrie actually composed the song as a direct response to Irving Berlin's hyper-sentimental "God Bless America." Set to the tune of the Carter Family's "When the World's on Fire," the heart of Guthrie's version is in the verses that today are usually omitted:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

With these verses restored to the song, it becomes a much more bitter vision of America--expressing the idea of opportunity frustrated for ordinary people and the need to keep pushing forward, "walking that freedom highway."

Later in life, as Woody began to succumb to Huntington's disease and his speech began to fail, the idea that the stripped-down, "neutered" version of the song would be his public legacy so horrified him that he made his son Arlo memorize the song, complete with omitted verses, to keep the real legacy alive.

He was right to worry. "This Land" would eventually be used as an advertising jingle by United Airlines and Ford Motor Company--and, perhaps most grotesquely, as a campaign theme song for the presidential run of George Bush Sr.

AS THE Second World War broke out, Woody set out for New York City, where he met Alan Lomax--then an assistant in charge of the folk song collection at the Library of Congress. Lomax recorded Woody over several sessions for the Library, and pushed him to begin writing his (heavily embellished) "awgowbyografie," Bound for Glory.

Lomax also introduced Guthrie to a young Harvard dropout named Pete Seeger. A couple of years later, Guthrie invited the 21-year-old Seeger to tour the West with him--much as Seeger later shepherded a young Bob Dylan through the American South during the early 1960s.

Woody signed on as one of the "Almanac" singers, a left-wing group formed by Seeger that at any given point included between two and six members and spent much of its time performing for union organizing drives and strikes. The Almanacs adhered stringently to the CP line as well--performing antiwar songs while the Hitler-Stalin pact was still intact, and then suddenly taking up the pro-war, anti-fascist cause in 1941 when the pact came undone after Hitler moved troops toward the borders of the Soviet Union.

Woody chafed against the circle of wealthy intellectuals he was now running in: "Now I'm picked up...and find myself camped along the trail of the intellectuals...I hear their words that run like rainclouds and splatter a few drops across some hot pavement--and the sun and the wind turn the words to steam and they go up in the air like a fog."

Still, he remained convinced that music could play a key role in political organizing. As he cheekily wrote in one notebook: "Lenin: 'Where three balalaika players meet, the fourth one ought to be a communist.' Me: 'Where three communists meet, the fourth one ought to be a guitar player.'"

The famous slogan emblazoned on his guitar--"This machine kills fascists"--came about after Woody had seen the musical Finian's Rainbow, which featured a character based on him. The character gives up a life on the road in favor of settling down for married life. (Woody was, by this point, both an absent husband and father.) Writing that such a fate would not befall him, he said, "The union is my religion, the strike is my way of praying...I'm Woody the union man. Woody the union worker, and my guitar is my factory machine. My machine that kills fascists."

In 1942, after divorcing his first wife Mary, Woody fell in love with Marjorie Mazia--a modern dancer who worked as an assistant to the famed Martha Graham. Marjorie was married at the time, and her husband worked in the civil service. He discovered the affair when two FBI agents approached him and asked, "Did you know that your wife is sleeping with a Communist?"

WOODY'S EVENTUAL marriage to, and life with, Marjorie--living at 3520 Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island--gave rise to a period of intense creativity and some of his most famous songs. Moving away from the "agitprop" that had largely distinguished his time with the Almanacs, he began experimenting with ballads and found that one of his greatest strengths as a songwriter lay in capturing detailed scenes.

In 1945, he wrote the story of the "Ludlow Massacre"--a song that, among other things, propelled a young Brooklyn shipyard worker named Howard Zinn to begin thinking about the history largely hidden from workers. The song "led me to look in the library about this event which nobody had ever mentioned in any of my history courses (and) no textbook had ever mentioned," Zinn later said.

Another song, "1913 Massacre," is a haunting ballad about 73 people--mostly children--who died on Christmas Eve 1913 in Calumet, Mich., during a copper mine strike. At a party for strikers and their families, someone locked the hall doors and yelled "fire" into the crowd. The victims were crushed and asphyxiated in the melee that followed.

The pain of the song is palpable, as Woody describes the deaths of the children and the despair of their parents. The song is especially striking for the way in which Woody puts himself and the listener into the story: "Take a trip with me," he beckons. "I'll take you in a door...I'll let you shake hands with the people you see."

Woody's time at Mermaid Avenue was also marked by a massive output--of poems, children songs (as his family with Marjorie grew), even lyrics about Jewish holidays. "I feel now...that these words are such a force, such a pressure bomb inside me, that if I fail to get them out written down here...they will expand and actually explode and destroy me like wax paper," he wrote.

Domestic happiness with Marjorie didn't last. The couple's young daughter Cathy died from burns suffered during an electrical fire, and Woody's mental and physical health began to deteriorate as a result of the Huntington's disease that was only finally diagnosed in 1956. The couple divorced, and Woody briefly married a young woman named Anneka Van Kirk. In 1953, while lighting a campfire, he suffered severe burns to his right arm, which ended his ability to play the guitar.

In and out of hospitals, with his health deteriorating, Woody wrote that "every step leads me to another barred window and another locked door...Remind myself again this morning that I'm the world's best ballad maker, and nobody can ever take that away from me."

A series of institutionalizations followed. At New Jersey's bleak Greystone Hospital, Woody still managed, however, to keep his sense of humor. "This is the best damn place to be these days," he told one friend. "It's the only place in the country where I can get up on a stool and start screaming, 'I'm a Communist. I'm a Communist.' And no one can do a goddamn thing about it. If you do that, they'll arrest you." At one point, his Viennese doctor thought him delusional when he claimed to have written more than a thousand songs and to have made records for the Library of Congress--before being informed it was true.

By the end of 1956, Woody had stopped writing entirely, and by 1965, he was unable to speak. For someone who built his life around reaching people with song, to be cut off from this form of communication must have been especially cruel.

The terrible irony, of course, is that even as his health deteriorated and his body slipped from his own control, he became a hero to a new generation of folk singers--including a young Bob Dylan, who worshipfully visited Woody several times at the home of Bob and Sid Gleason, who brought Guthrie for weekend breaks from Greystone.

In another cruel twist, there has been a concerted effort to turn Woody into a bland figure--a "national treasure." As Woody's friend Irwin Silber exclaimed in 1966 when Woody was given an award by the Interior Department, "They're taking a revolutionary and turning him into a conservationist!"

That's not to say that those who have been inspired by Guthrie--including Dylan, Phil Ochs, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg and Wilco, to name a few--haven't done justice to his musical legacy. But on the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, it's important to remember the radical roots of songs that today are all-too-often presented devoid of their meaning.

As folksinger Phil Ochs put it when he wrote of Woody in his song "Bound for Glory":

Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore
But so few remember what he was fightin' for
Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim?
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?

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