Wednesday, November 10, 2010

American Saints: Woody Guthrie


In elementary school, most American children learn the song "This Land is Your Land." This song is taught as a patriotic ditty, comparable to "America the Beautiful" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

What most elementary school children do NOT learn is that this song was written by a social activist named Woody Guthrie, who harshly criticized the American government and wealthy capitalists for their exploitation of the working masses of America. Most school children do not learn this verse to "This Land is Your Land":

One bright sunny morning
In the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office
I saw my people
As they stood hungry
I stood there wondering
If this land was made for you and me.

This verse does not fit into the version of American history we teach our children--that US history is a steady march of progress and that, in America, everyone is equal.

The music of Woody Guthrie tells a much different story. He spent his life wandering around the US, riding in boxcars with hobos, singing folk songs in migrant work camps, getting to know the people who worked the fields and factories of America. Guthrie was an early advodate of employee unions--a way of giving power to the workers, who were often exploited. If you have read The Grapes of Wrath, you know the people Woody Guthrie sang about--the working poor, the migrants, the laborers, the homeless.

Guthrie saw an America divided between the haves and the have-nots, and he used his voice and his music to give voice to the struggling majority, who were not reaping the supposed rewards of capitalism. His song "Farmer Labor Train" sings about a train filled with the working poor "rolling into congress," crying out for representation and justice. Woody Guthrie was a champion of the working poor, and a critic of the ugly side of free market capitalism--where the wealth of the nation is largely concentrated among the richest 1-2% of society.

Guthrie was, in many ways, a socialist, in the most idealistic sense of that word--he believed in shared wealth and resources, and he criticized how the wealthy monopolized those resources. At times he used religious appeals, as in his song "Christ for President." In a poem entitled "The Unwelcome Guest" he wrote:

And we'll take the money and spread it out equal,
Just like the Bible and the prophets suggest.

Guthrie wrote in big black letters on his guitar, "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" -- a profound statement about the power of art and music to give voice to the powerless. Guthrie believed music could change the world and, in a way, it did. His most direct disciple was Bob Dylan, who took Guthrie's message of social change and inspired a new generation of Americans in the 1960s. Woody Guthrie, the scrappy, wiry-haired folk singer, was an American saint, and many of his songs are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

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