What Would Woody Guthrie Do?

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The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

Imagine you are a singer-songwriter allowed free access to the Woody Guthrie archives of unrecorded lyrics, to explore at will and take what you want for the making of a record of songs from America’s great hobo prophet.

That’s exactly what Jonatha Brooke is doing for a special concert to celebrate Guthrie’s 100th Birthday.

She’s teaming up with none other than legendary composer Joe Sample and drummer Steve Gadd.

How is it that this leftist, pro-labor union radical who was shunned in his own time has become so celebrated by the mainstream of American society today that he is the subject of a Public Broadcasting special and a U.S. postal stamp? I mean here was an angry vigilante, a fascist-hating, rabble-rouser who always took the side of the working man and the poor against the rich and corporate capitalist bosses.


Well, maybe he is embraced by half of America anyway in this land now so divided against itself.

We are a nation of contradictions, after all, where a radical right-wing pol like Paul Ryan can claim that his favorite band is Rage Against the Machine. Give us a break, man. You are the tool of the machine and apparently you don’t even know it.

In his book Woody Guthrie, American Radical, author Will Kaufman writes that while Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” is often considered the nation’s second national anthem, Guthrie himself “committed his life to the radical struggle” against the corporate capitalist machine.

Kaufman traces Guthrie’s political awakening and activism throughout the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Civil Rights struggle, and the “poison of McCarthyism.”

Kaufman also establishes Guthrie’s significance in the perpetuation of cultural front objectives into the era of the “New Left” and beyond, particularly through his influence on the American and international protest song movement. Utilizing a wealth of previously unseen archival materials such as letters, song lyrics, essays, personal reflections, photos, and other manuscripts, the book introduces a heretofore unknown Woody Guthrie: “the canny political strategist, fitful thinker, and cultural front activist practically buried in the general public’s romantic celebration of the ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’.”

Is it possible that the coincidence of the timing of Guthrie’s centennial and this seminal presidential election may clash in a way that all the sudden causes a breakthrough in the average American’s understanding of themselves and the system of government they live under in a way that will influence the election’s outcome?

I have my doubts, but one can hope. Other musicians are getting into the act to try to make a difference.

Famous slide guitar player and songwriter Ry Cooder has put out a special election year album with songs like the “Mutt Romney Blues” about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dog riding on top of his car, and another cut called “The Wall Street Part of Town.”

One of the reasons I bring this up today is that a union leader of my acquaintance in Birmingham, Alabama is so frustrated with the recruitment of young Republicans in his own ranks that he has taken to talking to his members about Guthrie and his pro-labor themes and playing Woody Guthrie songs in his office, like the one’s linked below.

I hope American union members wake up between now and November 6. They could make a huge, positive difference in this election and counter some of the bad voting based on ignorance and attempts at election fraud in some key swing states.

Alas, they will probably just split the union vote by going with their guts on irrelevant social issues like guns and gays, which have nothing to do with public policies a president influences while in office.

I have only one thing to say to any union member who votes Republican in this election. If you vote for this Massachusetts Mormon Mitt Romney and his Wisconsin tea party radical Paul Ryan in this election, and if they somehow manage to squeak out a win by stealing the election in close, swing states, you will not only be voting to destroy your own future as union members and that of your children and grandchildren. You will be complicit in destroying this country and opportunities for all of us, including me. I’m not going to take that lying down — and I don’t give a damn what you say about me, you dumbass racist rednecks. Wake the fuck up.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Do y’all not realize that your natural political tribe includes environmentalists, liberal trial lawyers and yes, black and brown people? They are on your side, not the corporate or Christian Republicans.

There is no future for the working man or the middle class, much less the poor, in an America with Romney as president, not withstanding what his wife said about him “saving America.” Saving America for who? A few rich, selfish assholes who don’t want to pay taxes? That is not the ideal of America envisioned by the founding fathers, and it is not the America sung about by Woody Guthrie.

President Barack Obama may not be perfect. He hasn’t solved all our economic or social problems in one term. But at least he is intelligent and he’s trying to help. And let’s face it. Compared to George W. Bush or Mitt Romney, Obama is loved throughout the world, including in France, a much better democracy than ours. That’s right. I said it. Throw stones if you will. But if the corporations or the government in France even hint at changing public policies on working hours, pay or benefits, the unions shut down the damn country. No trains run at all, much less on time.

Can we say that in America? The unions in Wisconsin made a major showing when a Republican governor eliminated their collective bargaining rights a couple of years ago. That got some steam going around the country for a few months. Even in Alabama, the unions got fired up for a few months and got involved in helping us to begin building an alternative, independent Web Press here to counter to corporate BS.

But the election of 2012 is less than three months down the road and that momentum appears to have been lost. Are you going to roll over and take it up the you know what for the next couple of months? Or are you going to get engaged and at least try to make a difference?

Maybe it would help to ask yourself: “What would Woody Guthrie do?”

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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