Woody Who Never Left Us
Woody Guthrie towered over us Baby Boomers. The sticker on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists,” underpinned our idealism and our activism. Our own ‘troubadours,’ the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, grabbed Woody’s falling banner and carried it in the van of our new generation. Like many, I suspect, I didn’t go to school the day he died of the Huntington’s disease that had long debilitated him, in 1967. He was gone, I knew, but (like Joe Hill) he never left us.
Already, both Dylan and Ochs had written songs to him. Ochs wrote:
And it’s “Pastures of Plenty” wrote the Dust Bowl Balladeer,
And “This is Your Land,” he wanted us to hear.
The rising of the unions will be sung again,
And the “Deportees” live on through the power of his pen.
Those of us from families even slightly left-leaning would have recognized all of the titles Ochs mentioned in 1964. “Pastures of Plenty,” with:
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
His ‘dust bowl’ songs, including “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” which ends like this:
We got out to the West Coast broke,
So dad-gum hungry I thought I’d croak,
An’ I bummed up a spud or two,
An’ my wife fixed up a tater stew —
We poured the kids full of it,
Mighty thin stew, though,
You could read a magazine right through it.
Always have figured
That if it’d been just a little bit thinner,
Some of these here politicians
Coulda seen through it.
“This Land Is Your Land” contains a verse rarely sung, though many of us knew it:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
And, of course, there’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” with this verse:
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
Until recently, all of those lyrics seemed like reverberations from another time. Today, though, they have renewed relevance, as do others of his songs—take, for example, “Do Re Mi”:
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”
Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
It may have been about dust-bowl migrants, but the song fits those trying to come into this country today. And this situation is likely to come to this, from “Greenback Dollar”:
We worked to build this country, mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we’ve built, mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.
In a prelude to what will certainly become heightened interest in his songs and his life, it was discovered during the 2016 presidential campaign that Guthrie had rather negative feelings about Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father:
“He thought that Fred Trump was one who stirs up racial hate, and implicitly profits from it,” the scholar, Will Kaufman, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, said in an interview….
In December 1950, Mr. Guthrie signed a lease at the Beach Haven apartment complex, Mr. Kaufman wrote in his piece. Soon, Mr. Guthrie was “lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood,” he wrote, with words like these:
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project
One of his songs, “Hard Travelin’,” contains this verse:
I’ve been hittin’ some hard harvestin’, I thought you knowed
North Dakota to Kansas City, way down the road
Cuttin’ that wheat, stackin’ that hay, and I’m tryin’ make about a dollar a day
And I’ve been havin’ some hard travelin’, lord
That’s one of the songs that inspired Dylan, who ended his “Song to Woody” with these lines:
I’m leaving tomorrow but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do
Is to say I’ve been hitting some hard travelling too.
In this age of Trump, we’re all in for some hard travelin’. It’s likely to hit us hard, and sooner than we may imagine.