16 October 2014

It is the 100th Birthday of Woody Guthrie, the true folk hero, the epitome of the Beatles’ “working Class Hero,” a really true American hero (a description that Woody would no doubt despise). Born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 12, 1912, named after his father’s favorite politician, Woodrow Wilson, Woody was born into and was a product of that rough and tumble time and place.

Well known as the author of “This Land is Your Land,” “Dust Bowl Blues,” “Hard Traveling,” “Talking Columbia” and so many more songs of and for poor folks, beaten down and fighting back in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Woody was that, and so much more! We today know Woody as the fighting troubadour that traveled with the Dust Bowl “Okies,” forced off their farms by greedy banksters, fighting and singing with striking workers, memorializing the Grand Coolie Dam , and traveling, singing for the Merchant Marines in the Atlantic. In all of that, we know and are inspired by Woody’s life, but only 200 of the over 3,000 songs that Woody wrote were ever published.

Woody was NOT perfect, the George Washington of myth and lore. Woody was deeply flawed! He had two wives and as many families. He loved sex and participated regularly. He was gruff, unkempt and smelled of the road he spent so much time on. His voice was scratchy, anything but professional, and his accent heavy. He even used the horrible racist ‘N’ word on his first radio program. He was, in short, a real person, just like all of us, of and from the place and time he was born into. The point here is not that he was a bad person, but how he handled those imperfections and who he stood with and for!

When told of the vicious nature that racist term, for example, he vowed never to use it again, (& didn’t). But far more important, he fought racism. Onboard the Merchant ships in the Atlantic, singing for the sailors, while being torpedoed twice and surviving, Woody played only for Black and White sailors together, breaking the color line. He sang only for integrated crowds, at times when that even violated laws, in many union fights. He sang of and fought for equality and justice and fought racism with all he had the rest of his life.

Woody eventually reconciled with his first wife, deeply loved and was a good father to his children and was really critical of his own missteps. This is, of course, unlike the rest of us who are perfect, holding all our relationships together always.

We could go through a list, as many this month will, Woody’s great songs, “This Land is Your Land,” written in response to Irving Berlin’s jingoistic and exclusive “God Bless America.” Songs like “Vigilante Man,” “1913 Massacre,” “Farmer-Labor Train,” “Union Maid,” “Talking Union” and others song by and for workers fighting for justice. “Jesus Christ,” in which Woody sang of a Jesus much closer to working, poor folks, who would be hardly recognizable to right-wing evangelicals today. The songs of the Grand Coolee Dam. “Miss Pavichendo,” about the great Soviet sniper, “Round & Round Hitler’s Grave,” “Sinking of the Ruben James” and many other songs to inspire the fight against fascism. However, far more of Woody’s songs were actually songs for children, who he most loved to sing to.

What made Woody Guthrie the truly wonderful inspiration he still is 100 years after his birth was his deep and abiding humanity, not his perfection! Literally everything Woody did, his songs, his books, his fabulous, imaginative drawings, his “Daily Worker” columns, everything contained the humor, as well as the hope and the anger of an embattled people. Facing massive unequal odds, Woody helped people come together and laugh, (life’s true anti-depressant), so that they could unite and fight their common corporate enemy. Woody was so beloved by folks then and still loved today by regular working people because he expressed the hopes, dreams, the anger, frustration faced by regular folks as their lives are stolen for the sake of corporate profits. But Woody also showed that we are more than that, we have real worth and can really change the world if only we stand together.

One of the most pernicious discussions about Woody today is the “he wasn’t really a Communist” argument put forward by so many pro-corporate spokesmen. What a ridiculous, “Angels on a Needle” argument that is! Woody wrote a column for the “Daily Worker,” the Party’s paper, and worked and fought with Communists and others fighting for economic justice his entire short life. Woody would’ve been the first to say that what “cards he signed” had little or nothing to do with his sympathies. Woody did not decide to stand with the many communists he knew because he’d read so many books on Marxism, he stood with those that he saw fighting for the people, his people, that he so loved.

The best answer to this McCarthyite argument I heard put forward by George Myers, the leader of the Maryland CIO during the 1940s and for many years the Labor Secretary of the Communist Party USA. When asked about problems in socialist countries, George stated that he “didn’t join the Communist Party because of anything folks did in Russia or Germany, but because it would help him and his people fight the vicious capitalist corporations here in America!”

That is how Woody also viewed the political world.

I would submit that Woody was a great leader, again something I’m sure Woody would deny vehemently. I’ve heard “great leaders” described as “one who can take complicated, important messages and put them in language easily understood by regular people.” For those that think this a poor term for Woody, I’d suggest that you read his first Daily Worker column, now up and posted at the People’s World online. It is very short, on the national debt, or “debit,” as Woody called it. He says that “if the government is us, & we owe the debit, then I owe you & you owe me, and if that’s a problem, then we should just call it off.” He takes the argument over the national debt and states that, if we owe the government, we have the ability to democratically cancel that debt. If that doesn’t fit this definition, I don’t know what would.

Now, more than ever since Woody short but unbelievably productive life, Woody’s influence is felt. It is in the Union fights in Wisconsin and here in Ohio. It is in the Occupy movement that swept across the nation. It is with those tired and hungry folks tossed aside by this corrupt and evil system that values only wealth and power. It was with young Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights, Peace movements of the 60s and the women, fighting for rights they’d already won and young gay folks, looking for justice. He is today inexorably wound through all our popular music, culture today, even having been inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland in ’96.

For those of us fighting against those tough, unequal odds today, fighting to defeat the monstrous theft of people’s wages, homes, pensions and dignity, ‘ol Woody is there with us, guitar on his shoulder, still standing, still fighting with us, his people!