Come Back Woody Guthrie, We Need You: America's Great Folk Singer Would Have Turned 100
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I suspect that I was not the only teenager in the late 1960s engaging in sex, drugs, rock and roll, and Vietnam War protests to whom Woody’s body of work had an antique feeling. A perfunctory one-time listening to the Alan Lomaxtapes of the man said to be one of Bob Dylan’s heroes was enough, I thought, to punch my hipness card. Arguments about unions and the venality of millionaires and the New Deal seemed like passé accounts of battles my parents’ generation had fought and won. Yet through the mysterious alchemy that the greatest works of art possess, and the bizarre devolution of American politics, many of Guthrie’s songs are paradoxically more relevant today that at the time of his passing in 1967.
Other than animus toward the Koch Brothers and their ilk, admiration for Woody Guthrie may be one of the very few things that the Obama administration and Occupy Wall Street agree about. “This Land Is Your Land” was performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger at Obama’s inauguration in 2008, and by Tom Morello leading a “guitar army” at the OWS rally on May Day of this year in New York’s Union Square.
On the weekend in mid-July of Guthrie’s 100th birthday, President Obama told Charlie Rose that “the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times,” and admitted he had failed to do so. Around the same time several dozen of the activists who had helped launch OWS met in Washington Square Park, where Guthrie had sung on many an occasion, to discuss what to do in the fall on the impending one year anniversary of the occupation. Their moral compass was intact but it was clear that the explosion of attention and activism last fall had not been the product of any one person, group, philosophy, or strategy—and that even the sharpest movement intellects weren’t sure about how to hit another home run. Should the focus be on college debt? Credit cards? Public financing of campaigns? Foreclosures? Should there be a campaign to have people wear red to symbolize how many Americans are “in the red?”
As both the liberal establishment and the various pieces of the Occupy movement searched for lost chords that could galvanize mass opinion around economic issues, the unique value of great art and great artists loomed large. It was not just Obama who has to figure out how to “tell a story”—it was the entire Left.
As it happens, the fierce debate about the nature of community and government that is animating so much of modern American politics echoes one taking place just as vigorously more than seventy years ago, when Guthrie wrote his most influential songs, long before cellphones or television, before hip-hop or rock and roll, before hipsters or punks or hippies or beatniks, before Pearl Harbor, before McCarthyism, before gay rights or second-wave feminism, and before Jackie Robinson played his first major league ball game. And the reason Guthrie’s work is remembered, while that of his contemporaries is largely forgotten, is not only because of his genius for memorable phrases. Most of Guthrie’s political songs spoke not solely to transient issues of the day but to fundamental moral ideals about how people and societies should and should not behave.
IN HER new book, My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town(Powerhouse Books), Nora Guthrie, who like me was born in 1950, writes of her father’s journey to New York City in early 1940 at the age of twenty-seven. “During the month it took to hitchhike from Los Angeles to New York, ‘God Bless America’ was blaring out of every jukebox and radio across the country.” (The recording is still played during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.)