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Woody Guthrie: Redder than Remembered

Scott Borchert, Review of Will Kaufman, Woody Guthrie,
American Radical (Chicago: University of Illinois
Press, 2011) 264 pages, $29.95, hardcover.

Monthly Review 
June 1st, 2011


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On January 18, 2009, two days before Barack Obama's
inauguration, close to half a million people gathered
for a free concert on the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial. They were sung to and spoken at by a handful
of musical artists, actors, politicians, and other
prominent figures, including the President Elect and
the illustrious Bono. Near the end of the concert, Pete
Seeger, his grandson Tao Rodr¡guez-Seeger, and Bruce
Springsteen led the crowd in a rendition of that old
patriotic chestnut "This Land Is Your Land." Naturally,
everyone sang along, just as people have in countless
classrooms, school pageants, political conventions, and
rallies since Woody Guthrie's most famous song entered
the national consciousness in the 1960s.

Who knows what was going through Pete Seeger's mind at
that moment? There he was: the musical highlight of
this state-sponsored spectacle, framed by the stars and
stripes, and singing what might as well be the
unofficial national anthem of the United States. A
surprising image, considering that the United States
once declared Seeger a dangerous subversive, hauled him
in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee,
and sentenced him to ten years in prison for
courageously sticking to his First Amendment guns. The
sentence was overturned in 1962 but Seeger was
blacklisted from major media outlets, and it took years
for the stigma to fade-to the extent that it ever did.

And yet, by 2009, Seeger was apparently considered
normalized (or perhaps domesticated) enough by elite
opinion to be featured at the official inauguration
concert. But Seeger had a trick up his sleeve that day.
After singing their familiar way from "the ribbon of
highway" to "the Gulf Stream waters," the trio launched
into three relatively unknown (and often censored)
verses, with Seeger reciting each line loud and clear,
just before the others chimed in. They sang about
hungry people huddled outside the relief office; they
attacked the very concept of private property; they set
out on the "freedom highway," and defied anyone to stop
them. In other words, they seized upon the radical
message of "This Land Is Your Land" and rehabilitated
it in front of what was probably the largest single
audience the song has ever had.

Now, to the cynical eye, this was just one more
instance in the long, sad, and inevitable co-optation
of Woody Guthrie, however good the intentions of the
performers. Even if the radical core of "This Land Is
Your Land" was restored, did it make any difference?
Was there not something perverse in placing this song
at the center of such a garish celebration of state
power? Was this not, as Gramsci might have said, just
the old trick of capitalist hegemony re-articulating
itself as easily containable (and commodifiable)
resistance? To put it simply, was this not a sellout on
the grandest scale imaginable?

Perhaps. But to any extent that this is true, the
performance of "This Land Is Your Land" was still
remarkably subversive, as a symbolic act and as a form
of agitation. Consider the basic function of the
inauguration concert: it was a typically slick piece of
nationalist propaganda, intended to project the myths
of American exceptionalism and obscure real divisions
of social power behind star-spangled appeals to
patriotic unity. Seeger and company interrupted this
narrative with an image of capitalism's dispossessed,
the people with hungry stomachs in the richest nation
in the world. Even more astoundingly, they depicted
private property not as some god-given "right" but as a
social relation-an unjust one that should be swept away
by cooperative ownership.

And then there's the "freedom highway." A fairly
innocuous image, but knowing anything about Woody
Guthrie and his politics, that highway could have only
meant one thing: the road to socialism. As Will Kaufman
argues in his wonderful and uncompromising book, Woody
Guthrie, American Radical, the folksinger was not
driven by some abstract commitment to justice alone,
but by the vision of a cooperative planned economy, one
that could meet people's needs directly and foster
meaningful social, economic, and racial equality. He
threw himself into the struggle for socialism, and
insisted that "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" (88). Of course, Pete
Seeger would have known that-he and Guthrie, after all,
had been friends, collaborators, and comrades.

Not that Guthrie's radicalism was ever much of a
secret. From his first radio gigs at KFVD in Los
Angeles, Guthrie melded the "hillbilly" music of his
native Oklahoma with an increasingly sharp critique of
social injustices, particularly those suffered by
fellow "Okies" whom the Dust Bowl had transformed into
a migrant labor force. He attacked California's
repressive "immigration blockade" in the song "Do-Re-
Mi" and wrote movingly about conditions in local
Hoovervilles. Soon he was writing a regular column,
"Woody Sez," for the People's World and later the Daily
Worker, both published by the Communist Party USA. When
Guthrie cut his first record, Dust Bowl Ballads, for
RCA Victor, he told Daily Worker readers that "I seem
to have been born a shade pink, and didn't have to read
many books to be a proletariat, and you can guess that
when you hear the records, as I'm sure Victor [has]
never done a more radical album" (42). Guthrie was, in
effect, carving out a space in the popular music
industry for openly radical artists, paving the way for
the likes of Phil Ochs, the Clash, the Coup, and
countless others that have appeared in ensuing decades.

While Guthrie's political commitment would have been
apparent to anyone paying attention, Kaufman argues
that Guthrie developed a richer-and much more militant-
radical consciousness than his recorded output
suggests. For instance, the final verse of Guthrie's
early ballad "Jesus Christ" reads: "When the love of
the poor shall turn to hate/When the patience of the
workers gives away;/`Twould be better for you rich if
you'd never been born'/For you have laid Jesus Christ
in his grave" (43). Not surprisingly, the verse exists
only on paper; no known recording of Guthrie singing it
exists. Forget turning the other cheek-here Guthrie
imagines the violence inherent to capitalism being
turned back on the ruling class in a grim vision of
class warfare. This trope ran through all of Guthrie's
work, and while he was eager to celebrate, and often
romanticized, the lives of working people, Guthrie also
sang about their revolutionary potential to transform

Over time, Guthrie became closer to Communist Party
activists and began a serious but frustrated study of
Marxism. He had trouble with the more theoretical
material, and once scribbled a note in his copy of
Lenin's Theory of the Agrarian Question, wishing that
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, Guthrie was committed to infusing his
work with Marx's critique of political economy-in his
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" (19).

It is doubtful that Guthrie was able to memorize
Capital in "a week or so," but the point is that,
despite the aw-shucks persona, he took his political
learning seriously and was moving toward a
sophisticated analysis of social reality. More than
simply portraying the squalor and brutality of life
under capitalism, Guthrie sought to expose the real
dynamics of the system and give voice to the
experiences of all sorts of human beings caught up in
its vast productive apparatus. For the most part, these
were voices coming from the bottom of society,
otherwise drowned out by the hum of factory machinery
and the roar of the dust storms, the police barking
orders and politicians making promises. Through his
songs, Guthrie let these voices be heard-and demanded
that we listen.

Woody Guthrie, American Radical is neither biography
nor hagiography. Instead, Kaufman explores the
political content of Guthrie's work and personal
identity in a way that anyone already familiar with the
basic story of his life will find immensely gratifying.
While this book does not avoid portraying Guthrie with
all his flaws-his self-righteousness, his casual use
and abandonment of women, his personal fondness for
Stalin, to name a few-Kaufman is no iconoclast. Rather,
he admires Guthrie, not as some faultless idol but as a
particular human being who used art to say something
about society, and through that art, worked to change
society for the better. In fact, Kaufman is dedicated
to continuing Guthrie's project today-he tours the
classrooms and folk festivals of the United Kingdom,
Ireland, and Europe with original presentations that
combine musical performance and history, bringing
Guthrie's art and message to audiences that otherwise
might never have been exposed to either.

While arranged mostly chronologically, Woody Guthrie,
American Radical groups its material into loose,
thematic sections that correspond with phases in
Guthrie's political development. Kaufman begins with
the context of Guthrie's Oklahoma upbringing, pointing
out that his oft-cited birthday, Bastille Day, is
merely a coincidence; the year of his birth, 1912, is
far more significant in that it marked the "near-zenith
of the rising and falling tide of Oklahoma socialism,"
the year when Eugene Debs's Socialist Party won 16
percent of the vote statewide (compared to 6 percent
nationally) (10). The socialist tradition in Oklahoma
mixed populism with a dose of left-wing Christianity
(The Grapes of Wrath's preacher, Jim Casy, for
instance) and drew much of its support from small
farmers and immigrants. It was this milieu that
initially shaped Guthrie's independent and populist-
minded radicalism, Kaufman suggests, and deeply
influenced his later work-all presumably to the horror
of Charley Guthrie, Woody's father, a businessman and
real estate speculator who wrote articles denouncing
the local socialists.

If mingling with prairie socialists, migrant workers,
boxcar hobos, and members of the Communist Party nudged
Guthrie toward radical politics, it was the outbreak of
the Second World War that launched him into ardent
antifascism. In many ways, the war was a pivotal moment
in Guthrie's evolution, and it serves as a sort of
narrative hinge for the book. Before the war, Guthrie,
like many radicals, regarded a conflict between nations
as a conflict between those nations' bosses, one in
which the workers of the world had no stake. The early
recordings of the Almanac Singers, the group he formed
with Seeger and others, promoted this antiwar position.
But Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the sinking
of the U.S.S. Reuben James, and the bombing of Pearl
Harbor pushed Guthrie-along with the Communist Party
USA and much of the U.S. left-to give full support to
what he regarded as a war against fascism.

Guthrie was not shy about owning up to this abrupt
about-face in his attitude toward the war. As he put
it, "The world ain't all good or all bad, things happen
fast, and change around..Wars break out and folks are
first on one side, then on another, because they
believe in something, because they hate something.and
gradually, out of all our isms, new isms, and new songs
grow like weeds and flowers" (83). True, Guthrie was
following the party line, but he also believed that
one's politics need to change with changing conditions
and adapt to the class struggle as it plays out in the
lives of actual human beings. The "New Situation" (as
he termed it in a song) required a new stance, not
blind adherence to some rigid orthodoxy.

And that meant new songs. Whether with the Almanac
Singers or alone, Guthrie wrote feverishly, and he
considered every pen stroke and strummed chord part of
the fight to smash fascism (at this time, he famously
pasted a label to his guitar that read, "This Machine
Kills Fascists"). Guthrie was deeply shaken by Nazi
atrocities and haunted by a vision of his loved ones in
chains, or worse. As he wrote to his second wife, the
dancer Marjorie Mazia (who was Jewish), his antifascism
was motivated by "a personal hate so strong that it
makes you want to kill in order to keep the people you
love from being slaves.because if you really love
anybody or anything or any principle or any science or
belief, you will hate, hate, hate, and keep hating
anybody or anything that tries to hurt, or kill or
destroy that which you love. Unless love has got this
hate, it's not love at all, it's a cave full of
mysticism, and one of the most dangerous forms of
cowardice" (96). Woody Guthrie woodcut

Guthrie's extreme passion began to show in songs that
glorified the killing of enemy soldiers and even the
bombing of enemy cities-a sort of glee that is off-
putting from this distance, in full historical view of
the sheer human wreckage of the Second World War. His
songs captured the brutality of the war but in a way
that was largely uncritical of the entire war-making
enterprise. At the root of this development was a
change in how Guthrie viewed the state itself: whereas
he once wrote dismissively about Franklin Roosevelt and
the New Deal, for example, he was now singing praises
to the triumvirate of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin.

In fact, Kaufman suggests that this shift is visible in
alterations to the songs Guthrie wrote about the
Bonneville Power Administration for the Department of
the Interior. In a 1941 version of the song, "Talking
Columbia," Guthrie sang: "Well, the folks need houses
and stuff to eat,/And the folks need metals and the
folks need wheat./Folks need water and power dams,/And
folks need people and the people need the land" (64).
But by "circa 1947," after the war, Guthrie had
substituted "folks" with "Uncle Sam," shifting the
focus from the needs of the people to the needs of the
state, and effectively blurring the distinction between
the two. This was an expression of Popular Front
politics just as much as it was a result of Guthrie's
own changing views, but it gets to the heart of his
full-throated support for the war effort, even in its
most cruel and violent expressions.

Regardless, Guthrie believed that the first task of the
artist-musical or otherwise-was to "root out, expose,
and kill out the fascist enemy everywhere, at home and
abroad" (93). He took this seriously enough to enlist,
and ended up in the Merchant Marine, where his ship was
torpedoed twice, and he was once "at the receiving end
of a punch in the nose from a right-wing shipmate for
shouting, `God bless the Red Army!'" (102). Other than
that, Guthrie experienced no direct combat with
fascists; his main-and lasting-contribution to the
fight was through his music.

Kaufman argues that Guthrie's antifascism was not
limited to the war effort but part of a broader social
perspective that saw an emerging "Union world" of
equality and solidarity pitted against the fascists
everywhere-whether in Nazi uniforms or KKK sheets,
breaking strikes or leading lynch mobs.

For Guthrie, then, antiracism was inextricably linked
to the fight against capitalism, and throughout his
career, he made the connection between the two
explicit. Like many whites from the same background,
Guthrie was casually racist as a young man, and
sometimes performed degrading minstrel songs during his
early years on the radio. After receiving a polite but
stern letter from an insulted black listener, however,
he rejected this poisonous consciousness and became an
outspoken opponent of bigotry and white supremacy,
championing black artists like Huddie "Lead Belly"
Ledbetter and writing topical songs about grievous
cases of racial injustice. Once, after a show in
Baltimore with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee,
Guthrie's co-performers were asked to eat in the
kitchen-Guthrie, enraged, began to trash the place, and
was led out, yelling that the war against fascism
needed to start at home. Not long after, Guthrie came
face-to-face with the homegrown fascists of New York
state's Westchester County, while standing in
solidarity with Paul Robeson during the Peekskill
Riots. He was shaken, but those events confirmed what
he already believed: that the war may have ended but it
was still too soon to peel the antifascist label off
his guitar. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Meredith Stern, creator of this illustration, is one of
eighty artists who produced over one hundred posters
for Celebrate People's History (Feminist Press, 2010),
a book commemorating great events, activists, and acts
of resistance. Edited by Josh MacPhee, member of the
Brooklyn-based Justseeds Artists' Cooperative
(justseeds.org). Used by permission.

In the end, the twin demons of McCarthyism and
Huntington's Disease slowed Guthrie's output, and as
the Popular Front was replaced by the witch hunt,
Guthrie's physical deterioration made it more
difficult-and finally impossible-to play. Kaufman does
not linger on these years, but describes how Guthrie's
songs and persona were transmitted to the folk revival
of the 1960s by artists like Ramblin' Jack Elliott and
Bob Dylan. In many ways, it is Dylan who is most
representative of how Woody Guthrie was metabolized by
popular culture: Dylan, after all, adopted some shallow
version of Guthrie's persona (complete with the
involuntary tics of late-stage Huntington's, much to
the horror of those who recognized them) and eventually
turned away from the politically committed core of the

It is a telling comparison: Dylan would reject what he
infamously called "finger-pointing songs," whereas
Guthrie considered these songs the very lifeblood of
his work. When a woman once asked Guthrie why he did
not sing for free when it was for a "good cause,"
Guthrie replied, "Lady, I don't sing for bad causes"
(119). The cause was the point.

In a more unjust world, Woody Guthrie might have
succumbed to this Dylanization: his legacy would have
been a transmutable aesthetic category, as easy to
apply or remove as a guitar capo, emptied of political
content and ripped from its particular historical
context (or perhaps invested with another,
romanticized, one). That is how Guthrie is for many, a
kind of hillbilly Jack Kerouac, wandering the nation's
highways and singing about dams and hobos and all the
wonders of "this land" that was "made for you and me."
But thankfully, the collective consciousness of the
radical movement has not forgotten what Guthrie stood
for, and countless musicians-working in folk, country,
punk, metal, hip-hop, and all kinds of amalgamations
thereof-continue to build links on the great cultural
chain of which Guthrie is just one part, although a
significant one.

Hopefully, Will Kaufman's book will help the rest of us
remember what Guthrie meant when he insisted "this land
is your land": not praise for the state but love for
the people; not an empty declaration of patriotism but
a warning-indeed a threat-to all the bosses and
fascists out there who would deny our collective
aspirations. I suspect that this is what Pete Seeger
and Bruce Springsteen were getting at during the
inauguration concert, and if there has ever been a more
audacious display of speaking truth to power, as the
saying goes, this one must be a close second. On that
day, they sang one of the greatest red songs by one of
the greatest red songwriters this country has ever
produced, literally to the faces of the ruling elite
and in the very heart of empire, for millions of people
to hear. Woody would have loved it.


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