Written by Ed Tant
This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, one of America’s most important and most radical songwriters. Best known for his song “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie wrote hundreds of tunes that combined his leftist politics and his impish sense of humor. “Left wing, chicken wing — it don’t make no difference to me,” he said.
Born in the small town of Okemah, Okla., on July 14, 1912, Guthrie was named for Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat who was elected president in the hotly contested election of that year. Though his father was active in Democratic Party politics, Guthrie held both major parties in contempt, writing in one of his songs, “If you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a white hood Ku Klux Klan, no use to ring my doorbell, ’cause I’ll never be your man.”
The Oklahoma of Guthrie’s childhood was a hotbed of political dissent. The state’s Socialist Party was a powerful political force, and socialist leader Eugene Debs was a frequent visitor to Oklahoma during his campaigns for the presidency — when the 20th century was young and radicalism was a force in American politics. Oklahoma farmers and factory workers flocked to socialist rallies to hear Debs “preach the red gospel.” Such a strong undercurrent of radical politics in his home state had a major influence on Guthrie’s life and art.
As the Depression and the Dust Bowl raged in the 1930s, Guthrie mingled with migrant workers, and like other “Okies” he traveled to California in search of both adventure and a better life. “He knew drifters and movie stars, migrant workers and Skid Row barflies, Martha Graham dancers and dance hall floozies, abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell … and he wrote about them all,” said writer Ed Cray, author of “Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie.”
On the road and in “hobo jungles” across America during the Depression, Guthrie sang in a raw but honest voice as he honed his skills on guitar, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica. His travels and travails made him seem like a political and musical version of the beleaguered Tom Joad character in author John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Guthrie himself seemed to see the parallel between himself and the literary character. In his song “Tom Joad,” Guthrie wrote, “Wherever little children are hungry and cry,/ Wherever people ain’t free/ Wherever men are fighting for their rights/ That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”
Politicians, plutocrats, preachers and police waged war against workers during the Depression, and Woody Guthrie fired back with his words and music. A small sign on his guitar proclaimed, “This Machine Kills Fascists” and in his angry song, “All You Fascists,” he wrote, “I’m gonna tell all you fascists/ You may be surprised/ The people in this world/ Are getting organized/ You’re bound to lose/ You fascists bound to lose.”
Guthrie died in 1967, but like songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill in the years before World War I, he had a lasting influence on generations of musicians like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen and Arlo Guthrie, his son — who followed in his father’s footsteps. America still needs its radicals like Woody Guthrie in a current time when multinational big businesses are considered people and both major political parties kowtow to corporate powerbrokers.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, the wise and witty words of Woody Guthrie still ring true: “As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
About the AuthorTant has been an Athens columnist since 1974. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, The Progressive, Astronomy magazine and other publications.