It was January 18, 2009, and 500,000 people huddled in the cold to watch a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama. They were treated to the words of some of our great actors and musical artists, people such as Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Beyoncé, and Bono. They were even treated to words from the president-elect himself.
As the event came to a close, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen led the crowd in a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song most of us think we know, but don’t — a song we love, although we might not if we knew why the song was written and what the song is really about.
And what the man who wrote ...view middle of the document...
He lives in Rumson, N.J., a Jersey Shore enclave where the average home goes for a working-class price of $1 million. Springsteen also owns a 200-plus-acre New Jersey farm that he uses as a tax dodge. Add to the mix his intellectual-property catalogue, which generates millions in royalties each year, and the Boss is one of the wealthiest property owners in America.
But back to Woody Guthrie, and — as the late Paul Harvey liked to say — the rest of the story. This is the story you didn’t hear this past weekend during the endless encomiums to Guthrie as the Left celebrated his 100th birthday.
As Will Kaufman points out in his book Woody Guthrie, American Radical, the folksinger was not driven by progressive abstractions; he dedicated every part of his life to promoting economic, social, and racial equality for all, and he did so by pushing for a dramatic transformation of America itself.
For Guthrie, Kaufman explains, it was all about the proletariat and bettering the condition of the average worker. “I never sing nor play one single word or note that is not for the help of the working classes to know more, feel better, rise up, and to own and control this world that they have built,” Guthrie said.
But it was the means to that end that made Guthrie a radical. He wanted America to follow the Soviet model of government ownership of the means of production, wherein central planners and bureaucrats distribute the wealth for all workers to enjoy.
Along with the thousands of songs Guthrie wrote, he penned columns under the title “Woody Sez” for the People’s World and the Daily Worker, both papers published by the Communist Party USA. And although there is no evidence that he ever joined the Communist Party — Guthrie was too much of a vagabond and general crank to join a club that would accept him as a member — he even managed to shower Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin with praise.
Guthrie was the first musical icon of the 20th century to make it cool to sing songs about the workers’ revolution, ushering in the later tunes of Phil Ochs; Joan Baez; Billy Bragg; Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Green Day; and the Clash.
Guthrie was protest music’s Che Guevera; his weapons were a pen and guitar, not a gun.
Kaufman’s book chronicles Guthrie’s close ties to Communist Party activists, and the frustration he encountered studying Marxism. Guthrie couldn’t get past the theoretical nature of the material. In his copy of Lenin’s Theory of the Agrarian Question he scribbled a note that he wished he could “make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin and Wilkie and Roosevelt and Earl Browder fly down and roost in my brain.”
But despite his difficulties understanding the texts, Guthrie was committed to bringing the work of Karl Marx to the general public. Indeed, in his personal copy of Capital, he wrote: “Will memorize contents in a week or so. . . . I’d like to try to write all of these things down in short words.”
If only Guthrie had...