Considering Today’s Struggles Through Woody Guthrie’s Eyes
October 21, 2020
I knew that when my book, Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life, came out, I would inevitably be asked questions like, “What would Woody Guthrie do today? Where would he stand on this issue? What would he think of this candidate or that elected official?” I’m mostly accustomed to writing about topics at least several decades distant from the present, and I try hard to honor the otherness of the past, rather than portray it as a simpler version of the now. Plus, responses to such questions so often depend more on the projections of the answerer than on historical evidence. Witness the sick spectacle of contemporary conservatives claiming the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. because they can cram a single phrase from a single speech into the mold of their ideology and conveniently ignore his fleshed-out views linking racism to capitalism and militarism.
Consequently, I confess to a bit of dread, and resistance, toward such questions. Nonetheless, in some very real way, these are also the essential questions to ask of a book like mine; why write a book about a historical figure without some sense that, in no matter how obscure or transparent fashion, something about them matters in the present? Also, I have seen the evidence, having viewed the vast majority of Guthrie’s archive. So, a fair assessment is somewhere within my reach. And some of its aspects might surprise you. So here goes.
His soul imprinted by personal and collective trauma in his childhood, Guthrie believed, unabashedly, that government should play a strong, reparative role in people’s lives, easing suffering, righting injustice, and enabling all citizens to flourish. To this extent, he would have despised the more and less militant, but nonetheless consistent anti-government orientation of our last six Presidents of both parties. And he would have enthusiastically welcomed the Bernie Sanders campaign, as well as the rise of the new stars of the leftier regions of the Democratic party: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “The Squad”: Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, as well as the growing numbers of state and local politicians committed to grassroots campaigning and governing.
But here’s where things get more controversial. The politicians I’ve named straddle Democratic-party-approved liberalism and a more radical set of views that drives their advocacy for selected policies one could fairly call socialist. Fundamentally, though, they remain committed to “America” as a powerful ideal, a synonym for ideals of freedom and equality, and they have faith in its institutions to, ultimately, realize these ideals. I don’t believe Woody Guthrie shared this commitment or this faith, at least not in the same form.
Indeed, no person of sound judgment and good faith could leave a deep reading of his archive with the idea that Guthrie’s main passion was to celebrate America and Americans. No one could come out of that place believing he would ever have embraced calls for unity before calls for justice. Guthrie would have sacrificed America in a split second if doing so could eradicate fascism from the world.
Obviously, the sense that Guthrie is a celebratory nationalist comes largely from his by far best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” which has become a favorite tune in elementary schools and at campfires. But this is not a song about inclusivity. Even overlooking the seldom-sung verse in which he explicitly condemns private property, the song’s refrain carries an implicitly negative message alongside the explicitly positive one: this land is your land, not the land of the people who, in market terms, own it, who hold the deeds to it. Those deeds are fictions, these people are thieves. (The question of the song’s erasure of Indigenous people and settler colonialism is more complicated.)
I won’t hazard a guess as to whether he would have bent his principles, as so many leftists are doing, and supported the centrist-liberal Biden-Harris campaign for the Presidency. I do know that Woody Guthrie was a radical, not a liberal. He didn’t believe that any of the ideals America claim as its foundation could be realized without the destruction—or at the very least substantial transformation of—capitalism. The ideal America he envisioned, in other words, would look wholly alien, if not utterly terrifying, to many of the nation’s citizens today—perhaps even to the majority of them.
Another largely underexplored area of his writing speaks meaningfully to the struggles of the present. Later in his life, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before his permanent hospitalization with Huntington’s disease, he began to think about race and racism in ways that challenged nationalist liberal common sense. He had worked hard to shed the influence of his white supremacist father and the ambient racism of his growing years in Oklahoma and Texas. As his positions drew him more and more toward communism, he learned of the Party’s efforts, led by Black members, to address a range of issues related to racism—not only voting rights and equal access to institutions, but problems faced specifically by working class Black people, like economic inequality and police violence. In 1949, he was among the crowds leaving a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, only to be set on violently by white supremacist gangs and police officers. He called it the worst thing he’d ever seen.
In the following couple of years, Guthrie grew closer to his friend Stetson Kennedy, a white anti-racism activist in Florida, who worked with the Civil Rights Congress, a largely Black group affiliated with the Communist Party. In 1951, the CRC issued a petition to the United Nations titled “We Charge Genocide,” which condemned the history of racial inequality in the United States as a deliberate program of mass extinction, led in the present day by the state via the police. Appended to the petition were hundreds of newspaper accounts of police brutality. Guthrie turned several of these cases into never-recorded songs. He also wrote a long poem embracing the document’s position, titled “Genocide.” Despite the growing acknowledgment among white liberals that structural racism exists in the US, and the wide acceptance of the idea that racist police violence is a serious problem, it’s hard to imagine any electoral candidate or elected official taking a stance this confrontational and not destroying their career.
Finally, Guthrie believed that fascism and capitalism overlapped significantly. They were both driven by rapaciousness and cruelty, and they both stifled the lives of the vast majority of a nation’s people, all so that a small minority could systematize their self-inflating, sadistic vision of the world while living in opulence. If the last four years haven’t convinced someone of this truth, it seems safe to say nothing will.
About the Author
Gustavus Stadler is a professor of English at Haverford College. A well-established scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century US culture and popular music, he is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U.S., 1840–1890. His writing has appeared in the Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, the North Carolina Independent Weekly, Social Text, Sounding Out!, avidly.com, and numerous other outlets. He lives in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Connect with him at gustavusstadler.org and on Twitter at @majortominor.