Songs of resistance - Woody Guthrie

Revolutionary artists are a particularly unlucky lot, in that they typically die twice. First, a biological death, usually penniless and persecuted. Then, second time around, a slow methodical political assassination - wherein they are celebrated as a “creative genius and dreamer out of touch with reality”, appropriated into a “national treasure” and, of course, their creative output commoditized by media corporations into special edition albums, books, posters, coffee mugs and foundations.

Today marks the 100th birth anniversary of Woody Guthrie (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967). Defying all odds, it appears that he has managed to evade his political assassination by the ruling classes so far. For instance, this week, when Occupy Guitarmy activists marched 99 miles from Philadelphia to Zuccotti Park in New York City, to commemorate Woody’s hundredth birthday guitars and placards in hand, singing songs, the police was waiting for them with barricades and batons. After all some songs deserve batons and billy clubs, while others get magazine covers and Grammy awards. Several labels have clung onto Woody Guthrie over the years. Father of the protest music genre. One of America’s greatest balladeers. A chronicler of the great depression. Dust Bowl troubadour. Author of the enormously popular song “This land is my land..”. Compulsive nomad and “commonist”. Working class hero. Yet few people remember him as a labor activist and even less recognize him as a communist.

On his birthday, instead of repeating the usual platitudes1, let's try to to understand Woody Guthrie’s true legacy as a progressive artist and revolutionary, by listening and singing along some of his best known works.

Ludlow Massacre

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Howard Zinn, the author of the famous A People’s History of the United States, referred to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, as “perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.” To defeat miners who were striking for better wages and their right to form a union, 19 people, including two women and eleven children, were burnt to death in a US National Guard operation, at the behest of the Rockefeller family who owned the mine2. Self-proclaimed guardians of social conscience who find the thought of workers’ resistance in Idukki’s tea plantations abhorring and repulsive should perhaps listen carefully to these lines.


Pastures of plenty

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The Dust Bowl of 1930s is considered one of the worst natural disasters in the Western world, one that saw tens of thousands of square miles of farm land buried by dust storms and severe drought, resulting in one of the largest mass migrations of people in North America. However, the reality is that was not merely an environmental disaster that had its roots in unscientific large-scale industrialized agriculture, it was also a capitalist disaster. Landless farmers and sharecroppers were already at the mercy of big landowners, when falling prices and dropping incomes forced them out of their lands into the relatively open pastures of California and the industrialized cities. Woody sings for all migrant workers that swell the reserve armies of labor in "pastures of plenty", when he sings


I Aint got no home

Driven out of small land holdings by SEZs and large industrial farms, driven out of own homes by bank foreclosures, driven into penury by pension funds that collapse in the upheaval of financial markets - these are all lasting themes of capitalism that makes this song just as relevant today as in the Great Depression.


The Greenback Dollar / I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister

The song originally written as “The Greenback Dollar” by Woody Guthrie, in typical manner of union songs, has had several incarnations over the years. This particular rendition is by the Almanac Singers , a left-wing artists group founded by people like Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Guthrie and others, that was explicitly aligned with the Communist movement.


This land is your land

No discussion of Guthrie’s life and work can be complete without considering this famous song. It was written originally as “God Blessed America for me” in response to Irving Berlin’s patriotic and shallow prayer song “God Bless America”3.

As we read the following lines, it should be clear why they are usually omitted in recordings. The content was considered too radical, and indeed that’s how it began to be appropriated to serve the nationalist and commercial cause, to the extent of being used in advertisement campaigns by United Airlines and Ford Motor Company.

This particular performance is one of the few ones where you can hear the omitted stanzas - and it was led by Woody’s long time comrade Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen - and of all the places it was performed on the occasion of inauguration of Barack Obama as the President of USA.

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So long, Com: Guthrie, it’s been good to listen to you. As you sang, there's a better world that's a-coming. We can indeed hear the chains a-rattling.

  • 1. "Woody Guthrie still inspires, 100 years on from his birth", The Guardian, URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jul/07/woody-guthrie-centenary-protest-songs
  • 2. "1914: The Ludlow massacre", Libcom.org, URL: http://libcom.org/history/1914-the-ludlow-massacre
  • 3. "Woody Guthrie at 100: Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, Will Kaufman Honor the "Dust Bowl Troubadour"", Democracy Now!, URL: http://www.democracynow.org/2012/7/4/woody_guthrie_at_100_pete_seeger