A rebel's guide to Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, American Radical

IT’S A twisted reality where the most truthful recent statement about a legendary American artist can come from a knuckle-dragger like Glenn Beck. Last year, the arch right-winger took time on his Fox News show to go through the song “This Land Is Your Land” with a fine-tooth comb—including the infamous “lost verses”—to come to the correct conclusion that it was written by “Woody Guthrie: Communist!” Evidently this was something of a revelation in the narrow mind of Beck, but it can also be chalked up to the deliberate watering-down that the folksinger’s legacy has endured since his death in 1967.

Recent decades have seen a debate launched in U.S. music circles and academia that can be summed up in the squeamish little question, “Exactly how radical was Woody Guthrie?” To many, it’s an uncomfortable equation to say that this most American of songwriters can be so connected with that quintessentially un-American streak of communism.

Into this fray steps Will Kaufman, an expat professor of American literature at the University of Central Lancashire in England, with his simply titled Woody Guthrie, American Radical. To call the book sorely needed would be an understatement—in a little over 200 pages (not counting citations), Kaufman manages to effectively convey just how inextricable Guthrie’s music was from his fierce brand of homegrown radicalism.

The book starts at a sticky place—Guthrie’s firing from California radio station KFVD for openly and steadfastly defending the pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in 1939. This starting place is significant. One biographer after another has been twisted into pretzels around this incident; most use it as a line in the sand, the one act that definitively separates “good Guthrie” from “bad Guthrie.” At best, Guthrie’s actions are justified by the “troubled times” of the Great Depression. Those less for­giving will portray Guthrie as nothing but a naive country bumpkin duped by big city reds.

Kaufman, however, goes right to the heart of the matter. He has gone to painstaking lengths to portray Guthrie’s politics exactly how they were and how they evolved—pulling extensively from his songs, his correspondence with comrades, even what Guthrie was reading at the time. He also keeps the editorializing to a minimum, neither attempting to deny nor defend Guthrie’s Stalinism, but rather letting the facts speak for themselves. Ultimately, it does his music a better service than any kind of liberal hand-wringing.

Ample time is given to Guthrie’s “awakenings,” his experiences meeting Dust Bowl refugees, striking tobacco farmers, displaced migrants turned away at the California border because they “ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi.” But the book goes even deeper, touching on the rebel folk tradition that existed well beyond Guthrie’s songs by the time he came around the American Communist Party in the late 1930s.

That tradition was organically connected with the labor movement, where songwriters just as often found themselves dropped into the heat of struggle: Florence Reece, the union organizer’s wife who wrote “Which Side Are You On?”; Claude Williams and John Handcox, the troubadours of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; Sara Ogan Gunning, who wrote the subtlely titled “I Hate the Capitalist System.”

Then there was Annie Mae Merriweather, the famed “Union Maid.” The jaunty, cheerful feel of Guthrie’s labor standard belies its original lyrics, which tell how company thugs brutally assaulted Ms. Merriweather, an African American sharecropper, for daring to organize:

Now the rich man
heard her speech
And he commenced to itch,
He hired his thugs
to spill her blood
Along the city streets.
They whipped her till she bled,
They hung her up for dead
In a little old shack one midnight black
For saying what she said:
“You have robbed my family and my people
My Holy Bible says we are equal
Your money is the root of all our evil
I know the poor man will win this world!”

None but the most committed radical songwriter could dare to so unflinchingly tell this story. Nor was all of this written at the behest of some Communist Party apparatchik. In fact, the book makes clear that there were plenty of times when Guthrie’s outlook didn’t exactly jibe with that of the official CPUSA—he was, after all, never a card-carrying member.

At the same time, Kaufman is hardly a follower of the “Church of Saint Woody.” He’s quite critical toward Guthrie’s songs during the Second World War, when most writers tend to be their most fawning. The man who mere months before had penned some of the most brilliant antiwar ballads was now rewriting the lyrics into didactic chest-thumping war anthems. Guthrie’s obvious hypocrisy makes these passages very hard to digest.

Even harder to take, however, is how Guthrie’s postwar output was cut short all too soon. The most obvious factor in this was the toll of Huntington’s Disease, but it’s impossible to ignore the role of McCarthyism as well. Most painful in all of this is that Guthrie’s work in the wake of the war’s end was arguably his most radical—songs that chronicled heroic labor struggles, an entire album dedicated to martyred anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, concerts that vigorously protested the brutality of Jim Crow.

None of it, however, was enough to withstand the dramatic shift right as the United States dug in for the Cold War. Guthrie was one of the many left-wing musicians assaulted by gangs of white supremacists in Peekskill, New York, in August of 1949. In some ways, the Peekskill riots represented a “last stand” for radical folk music, before it retreated from the picket lines into the campus coffee houses for the next decade. It also spurred one last creative burst in Guthrie’s songwriting; according to Kaufman, he wrote no fewer than twenty-one songs about the incident in the span of a month!

Exhaustively researched as the book is, it’s hardly dry; the author is a folk musician himself, and the unmistakable yet restrained passion is enough to put Guthrie’s work in the light it has deserved for quite some time. Placed in context, we are left with an understanding of Guthrie’s life and work tightly interwoven with the history of American radicalism—its strengths and weaknesses, its victories and failures.

As Kaufman argues, it is this version of Guthrie—and not the sanitized social patriot presented to us by so many historians—that continues to inspire. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find any politically conscious artist whose work hasn’t been influenced by Woody Guthrie’s legacy. It’s not just Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Phil Ochs. It’s Joe Strummer, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris. It’s Son Volt, Wilco, Tom Morello, and Ani DiFranco. It’s Native American punk bands and the rootsy London electronica of Alabama 3.

It takes a true giant to have that many artists standing on your shoulders. Kaufman’s book reminds us just how broad—and radical—those shoulders were.

Issue #102

Fall 2016

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