Saturday, July 14, 2007

Happy birthday Woody (without illusions)

Today is the 95th anniversary of Woody Guthrie, the legendary American folksinger and songwriter, who did much to enrich our life, not the least being "This Land Is Your Land"

Each year during this week, his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma throws a grand tribute with a free folk festival. (There is a fund raising concert Wednesday nights.)

I had the pleasure of attending with friends Laura Dungan and Aaron Fowler and can attest to its excellence, even though we were able to go only on Saturday. I reported on that festival visit in 2005 and 2006.

Laura, Aaron, and I each vowed to make it back to the festival. Unfortunately, we haven't. I come closer this year, making it all the way to Tulsa, within 72 miles of Okemah. That's most of the way from Wichita. But I had something far more important to do in Tulsa. (more on that in a later post.)

2007 Thoughts on Woody

As potent as the songs of Woody Guthrie are, as powerful as the arc of his life's story, and as tragic as the suffering of Woody, his family, and friends, we should not hestitate to acknowledge the deep ambiguity of his political and moral choices. For Woody the tribune of the people, the defender of the common people against oppression, the defender of democracy, had a major blind spot. It was a blind spot as significant as the American founders participation in slavery.

Guthrie, if not a member of the Communist Party, during the long years of its slavish devotion to Stalinism, was a full-fledged fellow traveller. His songs followed, for instance, the twists and turns of the CP during the invasion of Finland, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Woody never wrote a "Ballad of the Legless Veteran," who after WWII was fired as a government clerk because he belonged to subversive organization. The problem for the American Stalinists was that the veteran belonged to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Woody never wrote a talking blues for the March on Washington Movement, the movement led by A. Philip Randolph to force the integration of U.S. defense plants. Here the problem was that the Communist Party subordinated the just demands of minorities and workers to the military needs of the Soviet Union. CP hacks denounced Randolph as a fascist for insisting on the abolishment of Jim Crow in American defense plants.

During the war, the CP applauded the Smith Trial act prosecution of Trotskyists and demanded that Socialist Norman Thomas be prosecuted under the same law. During the cold war, American Communists were, in turn, prosecuted under the same laws that they had supported a few short years before.

Wobblies Vs. Woody

Tom Herriman, producer of Shiftbreak, a Washington state labor radio program, has an intriguing interview with shipwright and anthropologist Archie Green whose new book, "The Big Red Song Book" analyzes the famous "Little Red Song Book" published continuously by the Industrial Workers of the world (aka the IWW, aka The Wobblies) since 1909. Green explodes some of the myths about labor music, and charts the political fights between L the Wobblies and other popular folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Listen here.

A Final Word for now

Let's not avoid dealing with the full complexity of Woody Guthrie's life. There is no more reason to reject the values and sentiments of his great songs because of his naive attitude towards Stalinism, than there is to reject the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights because Jefferson and Madison were slave-owners. After all, this country still has to overcome its treatment of Native Americans and the post-slavery exploitation of African Americans.

In the final analysis, "this land is your land, this land is my land." But it is not enough to say "This land was made for you and me." It is time that we say "This land is you and I make it together." And, we can, only do that with honesty, reconciliation, and justice.

So, let's celebrate Woody for all he contributed and where he fell short, lets do it right.

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