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Woody Born Again: Reflections on Woody Guthrie at 101 and Protest Music


Come back Woody Guthrie, Come back to us now;

Tear your eyes from paradise; and rise again somehow.

          –Steve Earle “Christmas in Washington.”

 

Prelude: On Saturday evening we celebrated Woody Guthrie’s 101st birthday a day early with a three hour songfest and sing-along here near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After singing Woody’s harrowing and stinging anti-lynching song “Hangknot” midway through the event (“did you ever lose your father on a hangknot…they hung him from a pole, they shot him full of holes, left him there to rot on that hangknot”), the proceedings were starkly interrupted by an audience member telling us that Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman was found “not guilty.” It led to an immediate performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots.” The mood of the evening had quickly shifted from celebratory, to disheartened, and on to outrage. The combination of Woody’s “Hangknot” and Bruce’s “41 Shots” brought some greater clarity to the sickness, disgust, and outrage and one hopes provided some fuel to stir the flames of resistance and discontent. Music of protest has that power. There was palpable anger in the space stoked both by the harsh news about the injustice and ugliness of Trayvon’s case, and the weight, effectiveness, and cumulative impact of the music. It reminded us again of the ongoing relevance of Guthrie’s music…the relevance, in many cases, is surely not worth celebrating. The grim and violent realities of racism and classism, war and poverty, should no longer be so timely. They are. We know. Woody’s ongoing success in capturing the abominations is reflective of the profound scope of his insights and our profound failures to mobilize effectively to abolish the conditions and transform the institutions at the root of the detestable monstrosities. The relevance of the music points to Woody’s genius (and to Springsteen’s), but the ugliness, degradation, and dehumanization about which Woody so often sang, is too much with us still. 

Noam Chomsky recently noted in an interview with Linda Wolf that if one looks objectively at the state of the world, it is difficult to remain hopeful, even though our only moral choice is to continue to work to create conditions out of which meaningful and livable hope can emerge and flourish. Hope is transcendent, but in a material sense. Woody captured this moral imperative to transcend through the will to fight against oppressive and exploitative conditions when he sang “nobody living can ever stop [us], as we go walking that freedom highway; nobody living can make us turn back, this land is made for you and me.” Systems of power and domination keep putting up obstacles trying to stop us, directing us to turn back (substantive freedom is what systems of tyranny hate…as much as they hate democracy), but that simply means we need new and better tools to subvert and overcome the obstacles. 

Woody suggests in this song and in many others that we cannot allow the powerful economic, political, and cultural forms imposed by dominant systems, ideologies, and institutions, to determine the course of our history, even while we recognize that the history we traverse must be constructed out of the history with which we are presented. Woody provides profound historical context for the many struggles we face, and keeping a foot in those historical contexts is crucial for understanding the present crises and building a future in which decent human beings will be happy to live. For these reasons, and many others, Woody’s music is worth sharing and reflecting upon. 

Last evening’s events, celebratory and disheartening, spirited and dispiriting, emboldened and despairing, provoked the following protest-music-related reflections on July 14th, Woody’s birthday (and Bastille Day). Viva Woody Guthrie! Viva la Revolucion!

 

We must keep fighting 

Paul Robeson, singing at the 1952 Peace Arch Concert, changed the lyrics of the old standard “Ol’ Man River” from “I’m tired of livin’ and sacred of dyin’,” to “I must keep fighting’ until I’m dyin.” The shift moved the song from the perspective of passive recipient of history to active agent in making history, from a mood of acceptance to a statement of protest and resistance. They want us to be tired and scared, but we remain vigilant and courageous in the struggle. Robeson’s small lyrical shift captures the tragic and transformative element present in radical folk music, and it points to why Woody Guthrie said he would fight until the end against music that made people feel hopeless and defeated. Robeson’s shift also points to how we are both makers of history and made by history; it is not that Robeson “will” keep fighting (though he will), but that he “must keep fighting.” That he “must” is internally driven and externally imposed. The conditions of injustice and indignity force the issue, but Robeson will not accept being placed as an object of history, and claims his position as subject and producer of history. History shapes us, of course, and it shapes us too in accord with how we interpret and value that history. Robeson points to the power of reinterpretation in helping to change circumstances and transform our lives. The intimation is that we must develop the will, knowledge and ability, as well as the support, self-confidence and solidarity to become actors in our own drama, singers in our own song. Through the terrain with which we are confronted we must construct the pathways of our own history, and that might include new words to old songs, new dynamics to old struggles, and perhaps the application of old struggles to new crises. 

I think we can safely assume that revolutionaries such as Robeson and Guthrie fight not because they enjoy fighting, but because that is the only pathway to a world in which fighting against injustice and indignity is not a persistent requirement. Robeson’s message, a theme always bubbling up in radical protest music is: if we are to live into our role as moral agents we must keep fighting, even in the face of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. For Robeson and Guthrie, of course, music was one of the weapons in the fight. 

Woody Guthrie talked about how songs are weapons. Songs, he suggested, can be used by slaves in the struggle for liberation from slavery; by workers in the struggle for emancipation from exploitation; and, they can be used by the ownership class to control, distract and dominant the people. Woody carried a copy of the Wobblies “Little Red Songbook” in his pocket, and shared in the Wobbly vision of what Joe Hill called “the Worker’s Commonwealth” where workers will arise in “splendid might…take the wealth” we are always making, because “it belongs to [us] by right.” Woody called it “commonism,” a world in which “there is no hunger and want because everything is shared in common.” It is through that struggle for the workers commonwealth that we will be “born again” in Woody’s materialist conception of the world. Woody’s mentor and comrade Ed Robbin said that Woody looked at the world and politics through a lens that directed us to struggle for the One Big Union, take back the earth that rightfully belongs to the workers (not the owners), and also create conditions in which it is possible to love one another. It is such sentiments that reveal why Woody’s two favorite philosophers were Jesus Christ and Karl Marx. The lessons are revealed powerfully in Woody’s song “Jesus Christ” where the rich are told to give their wealth unto the poor, and when Jesus comes to town the “workers believed what he did say” about this commonist ethic and the root causes of inequality. 

Woody worked to write what he called “living songs,” (to combat the all too many deadening songs). Living songs are songs that make the world a better place for the workers and toilers of the world, songs that nurture and nourish the struggle to overcome conditions of exploitation and degradation, songs that tell the truth about the everyday life of those victimized by systems of oppressive power, and songs that help us realize that the world belongs to us, not to an anti-democratic elite-minority ownership-class. For Woody, creating “living songs” was a “must.” Woody wrote once that he had a bad day because he only wrote three union songs. He was passionately driven to create music in the battle to keep alive and stir the flames of discontent against the forces working relentlessly to keep us tired and fearful. He said that he never heard songs that told of the lives of working people coming out of the radio, or in the cinema, or on the jukebox. It was as though in the wider culture working folks had no history…had no life. He said it was because the boss class did not want to hear about the history of worker struggles, about the sweat and blood and toil, about the sickness and disease, the blisters and calluses, the struggles for the One Big Union, for free speech and to construct a family of nations. The family of nations, and the idea of the One Big Union, again point to Woody’s belief in “commonism,” i.e. a world where the rich give all of their goods to the poor, workers control and organize workplaces, war is abolished, and citizens organize and control communities while setting social priorities. 

Woody’s songs are prosaic and sublime, rooted in the commonplace but also transcendent. One can taste the dust, smell the blood, feel the noose, and hear the screams of agony in Woody’s songs, as he immerses the listener in the texture of life of the toilers and victims, revealing a struggling yet resplendent humanity within the daily trials and also in a hope beyond them. When in “Born Again” Woody sings of breathing in the spirit of both Jesus and John Henry, he is pointing to the idea that the spiritual is not a disembodied affair, but an approach to life through which we are connected as material beings to the rest of nature and to one another. The spiritual is grounded in visions of hope and the reality of struggle, in the power of the connection between the collective human brain and hand. In “Born Again,” Woody sings of feeling at home in the universe and united with both mountains and the sky where “the great eternal moment is the great eternal dawn.” In “Born Again” it is the warmth of the sun and each new day that lifts his spirit, along with the desire to support, and be supported by, friends and comrades. Transcendence is found not in some “deathly distant land” of “pearly gates,” and “streets of gold,” but in the comradeship and solidarity that makes us feel we can stand “above [our] troubles,” and “stand on [our] two feet” with unlimited power in our collective minds and hands. Intimated strongly in the song is that we are truly “born again” through acts of solidarity, human love, and in the union Promised Land. 

Woody understood well that the most significant and vital questions are confronted in the material struggles of people’s everyday lives, not in otherworldly disembodied realms. Woody wrote “I give myself, my heart my soul, to give some friend a hand; this morning I am born again, I’m in the Promised Land.” As Springsteen says in his song “Promised Land,” in order to “believe in the Promised Land” we must take each “moment into [our] hands” and when necessary “blow everything down” that is standing in the way of a decent existence, especially the false “dreams” and the “lies that leave [us]…lost and brokenhearted.” They want us to lose our way in hopelessness, but we must find our way in the promise of hopeful possibilities in struggle. 

The sublime, that feeling of losing the self in something outside of and larger than the self only to find the self “born again” at a higher level of humanness, can be found in the simple reality of helping one another and sharing our world in common…the union promised land. It is what Woody meant when he said we have to “learn to love one another,” and why he said that love is “the secret of secrets” necessary for overcoming “fear and greed,” the two main causes of trouble in the world (in Woody’s view). It is a love rooted in a basic fact of human life: we are dependent on one another for our survival and our well-being. This kind of social love to which Woody is pointing refers to the necessary desire and work through which we create conditions for mutual flourishing and fulfillment grounded in the free development of our multiple creative capacities. Marx called it “true wealth.” For Woody, as for Marx, this world of social love could not be created in a capitalist system because of the vast poverty amidst massive wealth capital is driven to create, along with a growing gap between rich and poor. The “great high wall” with the sign that says “private property,” heard in one of what Pete Seeger calls “the good verses” from “This Land is Your Land” captures a structurally determined requirement for capital: it must remain tyrannical, it must create obstacles to human freedom, and that means capital is disqualified from producing the forms of collective time and space required to construct substantive forms of economic and political democracy, i.e. capital cannot live into the other side of the sign that “didn’t say nothing.” That side, where there is no private ownership of the means of production, was “made for you and me.” 

Along with Robeson, Woody was committed to fighting until the day he was no longer able to fight. It is a spirit of tenacious resistance that music of protest can awaken and expand. Robeson and Guthrie, aware of protest music’s roots in harsh realities and its branches in new possibilities for a better world, both dared to challenge long-held myths about U.S. commitments to peace, justice, freedom, and democracy. When Guthrie sang “why do your ships bring death and destruction…why do your death bombs fall from my sky,” and said “I’ve got to know” because “hungry lips ask me wherever I go,” in his song “I’ve Got to Know,” he was critiquing powerfully the myth that U.S. power sends its forces to spread freedom and democracy around the world. The truth is much harsher: death, destruction, hunger, exploitation and poverty. Abrasive excavation is often necessary to arrive at the truth for it is seldom left out in the open. John Steinbeck recognized Woody’s necessary abrasiveness in his search for the truth. Steinbeck, writing an introduction to a book Woody put together with Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, “Hard Hittin’ Songs for Hard Hit People,” said “there is nothing sweet about Woody, and nothing sweet about the songs he sings,” and added “but for those willing to listen there is something more important,” and that is “the will of a people to resist” systems of exploitive, oppressive and violent power and domination. Ed Robbin tells us that Woody traveled the land seeking to organize people to fight for a better world, to fight against discrimination and exploitation, and especially he wanted to help people see our common enemy, i.e. to see and overthrow the tyranny of the system of capital the produces plenty of wealth for the few but monstrous poverty, despair and suffering for the many. For Woody, it was only through the fight that we could create a better world. 

As noted, Woody was driven by a belief in the possibility of a world in which people share everything in common. He called it “the Christian way.” In his song “Better World” he sang “Better world that's a-coming don't you see; When we'll all be union and we'll all be free.” Again, the IWW influence is felt, and again we see how “the freedom highway” (from “This Land is Your Land”) is code for “the One Big Union,” a world in which the adversarial relationship between workers and owners is abolished because the workers of the world have “taken possession of the means of production,” have abolished the wage system,” and are “living in harmony with the earth” to borrow lines from the Preamble of the IWW Constitution

Woody said he would fight until his last breath of air and his last drop of blood to sing songs that defend working people, that help folks take pride in their work and in themselves, and fight against songs of “the big money side,” songs that try to convince workers they were “born to lose…bound to lose…no good to nobody.” Until Huntington’s disease shut him down (he died in 1967 at the age of 55) Woody maintained his long-term commitments to social struggles for justice, peace, equality, and the union through which we will all be free. 

Throughout his relatively short productive life he composed more than 3,000 songs, and he demonstrated powerfully what it means to be a singer-activist/activist-singer and employ the power of song as part of a larger protest project of political and social transformation through which it is recognized that constructing a better future is in many ways rooted in how we come to work, hope, imagine, live, envision, resist, organize, construct, know, and sing together in the present. Woody’s work captured the visionary yet soberly realistic nature of protest music. He revealed how a combination of realism—seen and heard as the need to look honestly at harsh realities without falling into cynicism or fatalism—and vision—seen and heard as the need to see the light of potential transformations immanent in the present—informs the fullness of good protest music. Good protest music is willing to stare in the face of, reflect upon, and point fingers at the worst conditions, knowing that doing so is part of the struggle in overcoming such conditions. Sometimes pointing fingers is our best option, but behind the fingers are hands, and arms, and brains that must be mobilized to overcome that toward which the fingers are pointing. Good protest music is too down to earth to be blinded by idealism, but too idealistic to fall victim to pessimism and despair suggested by dismal and sordid realities. Good protest music is always historical, and lives and breathes history as always an interpenetrating set of past, present and future processes. When Steve Earle sings about losing the trail of Woody Guthrie so that he is lost “stumbling through the haze,” he points to the need for staying alert to those historical interpenetrations and legacies. It is not a call to sentimentality about the past, but a demand for a genuine obligation to and engagement with the past for the purpose of exciting and activating feelings of solidarity and flames of resistance required for ensuring that “a better world is coming.” Good protest music can do that; Woody’s music does that. 

Possibilities for a better future are grounded in keeping one foot in the past. We see this commitment in Woody’s songs such as “Two Good Men,” about Sacco and Vanzetti, where in the lines “[Vanzetti] taught the workers to organize, and in the electric chair he dies,” Woody reveals the bloody horror that faced many union organizers in the long and ongoing struggle for liberation from capital’s exploitation of labor. He also keeps alive the much needed revolutionary spirits of Sacco and Vanzetti. In the “Ludlow Massacre,” where Rockefeller goons killed (burned alive) eleven children and two pregnant women in Colorado in 1914 as part of a larger assault on striking miners and their families, Woody keeps alive the urgently needed revolutionary spirit of the miner’s union. In “1913 Massacre,” about copper miners, making “less than a dollar a day,” Woody sings “such a terrible sight I never did see…the scabs outside still laughed at their spree, and the children that died there were seventy-three” Woody keeps alive the rebellious outrage experienced by workers and families assaulted by the vicious forces of capital. In “Harriet Tubman’s Ballad,” he sings about how Lincoln only “crippled that snake of slavery; We've got to fight to kill him dead” and here Woody keeps alive the burning revolutionary spirit required to address and overcome all forms of exploitation, dehumanization, racism, and slavery. In “Jesus Christ” Woody tells of how Jesus was laid in the grave when “he said to the rich ‘give your money to the poor,” keeping alive the exalting revolutionary spirit of Jesus and pointing to the system that creates the widening gap between rich and poor that must be overcome. There are many hundreds more songs. 

David Dunaway tells us that protest music works mostly to “evoke not the bitterness of repression,” however brutal and traumatic that may be, “but the glory of a world remade,” and in that sense too Woody’s protest music carries a rebellious and revolutionary character directed toward both understanding problems and crises and overcoming them. Woody’s music, whether singing against lynching, against war, against poverty, or for freedom, justice, and dignity, always works as a form of mediation between the bitterness and the glory, the particular and the universal, moral argument and political engagement, crushing realities and critical dreams, individual difference and our common humanity, the will to fight back and the ability to realize victories. It is music that undermines and builds, it works to undermine the injustices imposed by systems of domination and violence, and it builds toward a liberated humanity, it is music that tells us we must “work in this fight and fight ‘til we win,” as Woody sings in “Pastures of Plenty.” And in the same song he even tells us that it may be necessary to defend this land that belongs to us with our lives, expressing what might be called “the true spirit of Christ,” i.e. the willingness to sacrifice all for justice, freedom, and humanity. 

Woody’s music functions as a hammer that destroys and builds, a bell that rings warnings and chimes freedom, an engine that drives the urgent reality of struggle and the patient spirit of reflection, and a roaring wind, seen and heard in Woody’s race through history in his song “The Biggest Thing That Man has Ever Done,” where there is a long history from “the Year of One,” up to the then current fight against Fascism in Europe (and of course the fight against fascism continues). Woody understood well and discussed how the fight against Fascism did not end with the war against Nazis; that fight he argued must also be carried forth in the United States. Central to the song is the long struggle for freedom and against tyranny and an ongoing reminder that it is the workers who built the world. 

In short, whether Woody sang or wrote about realities incompatible with the principles of democracy, the feudal and dehumanizing nature of capital, imprisonment, vigilantes, slavery, lynching, mine catastrophes, segregation, discrimination, massacres, wars and peace, ecological disasters, strikes and union organizing, systemic corruption, opposing fascism and tyranny, liberating women, civil rights, unrequited struggle or unrequited love, or new and better worlds, his music is rebellious and revolutionary in that it works to generate hope and glorify possibilities for liberation from oppressive and exploitative conditions that often seem hopeless and impossible to overcome. In that sense, Woody’s form of protest music is about the presence in the present of the past and future, of thought and emotion informed by reflection and inflamed by imagination. 

Woody’s protest music opposes tolerating the intolerable in recognition that there is far too much tolerance of the intolerable circulating in the U.S. (as again evidenced in the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case). That form of tolerance of the intolerable, endemic to systems of gross inequality, is in part a consequence of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil,” which is reflective of a society living in a profound and transmogrifying state of ignorance and dominated by a manufactured, alienating, and oppressive inability to think. This banality of evil is a key reason why we have so many “Mean Things Happening in This World.” In that song, Woody talks about people without “a cryin’ dime,” people being spied on by the police, “brothers and sisters killed” to serve the interests of the “green back dollar bill,” people thrown in jail for talking peace or “brotherly love” in the streets, and the need to “organize my brother and sister” if we are going to “win this world” that really belongs to us. And again, we see the same theme expressed in Woody’s most famous song, “this land is made for you and me [not the ownership class],” so we must mobilize and fight to win what is rightfully ours. Woody’s protest music works to expose the too often normalized unthinkable redolent of a society living enmeshed in the banality of evil, his music endeavors to transpose indignity into dignity, and in his music’s spiritual nature it is not abstracted from current realities but is an approach to transcending and living differently those realities that demand to be resisted and transformed. Tolerance that refuses to address and critique existing relations of unequal power works to the advantage of those with dominant power. Marcuse called it “repressive tolerance” because it works to secure power and repress those victimized by power. About all of this, Woody was stridently intolerant. He said that the songs of the working people, songs about all of “the beatings and killings and cheating” workers suffered because they wanted to “form them a working folks union” will echo through history until we overcome conditions of repressive tolerance and inequality, until everyone has a decent and meaningful job, until “there ain’t no rich and there ain’t no poor,” and until “families are living like human beings instead of like a nest of rats.” 

Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” shrieks “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” Steven Wells says, “Nobody will ever write a line in a protest song as perfect.” Crucial to protest music is its ability to challenge realities and question circumstances: why is there war; why is there racism; why is their poverty; why is there lynching; why is there torture; why is there class exploitation; why is there climate destruction; why is violence glorified; why is their sexism; why is meaningful democracy vilified and crushed; why is there inequality; and, what can and should be do about it, and how do we most effectively go about it, etc. Woody tried to help us see the “upside/down” nature of things and to turn them right side up. In his song “I Ain’t Got No Home,” the message is conveyed that those who work are poor and those who don’t are rich, capturing in a line the exploitative and repressive nature of the capitalist system that the IWW (“The Singing Union”) sang about relentlessly. The Wobblies, in “Solidarity Forever,” refer to bosses taking “untold trillions they never toiled to earn” and noting how without the “brain and muscle [of the workers] not a single wheel would turn.”” It is a sentiment expressed back in an 1829 lyric printed in an early union paper, The Mechanics Press: “The poor can live without the rich /As every man may know/But none that labor for their bread/Could by the rich be spared.” When Woody sings in “This Land is Your Land,” “I saw a bread line forming, in the shadow of the steeple; at the relief office, I saw my people; they stood there hungry, and I stood there asking ‘Is this land made for me and you,” it is Woody’s way of saying “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” because intimated in those lines is a profound anger directed at massive poverty and human suffering amidst great wealth and ostentatious privilege which should be intolerable, especially when we understand that “this is our world,” not theirs. The sentiment is continued in the lines “nobody living can ever stop [us]; nobody living can make [us] turn back” in our pursuit of “the freedom highway.” It is a combination of resistance, outrage, hope, persistence, and the recognition, in line with Robeson, that “we must keep fightin’ ‘til the day we’re dying” if we are going to save the world from the catastrophes looming just over the horizon for all of us, and already here for all too many of us. 

The rebellious spirit of Woody’s protest songs, bitter in the face of oppression, outraged in the face of exploitation, excoriating in the face of violence, but glorying in the possibility of a better world grounded in a commonwealth of workers, is sometimes conveyed plaintively, rousingly, as a lament, or militantly, and over the years Woody’s songs have been sung in mines, at lunch counters, in classrooms, in fields, in migrant encampments, under bridges, on marches, in concert and union halls, at occupations, in stadiums, in trenches, at strikes, in fields, on chain gangs, in jails and prisons, on barricades, on television, in films, in churches, at sit-ins, and at folk schools such as the Highlander. Woody’s protest songs, integral to many social struggles and embedded in our history of song, have assisted in ameliorating or overcoming the suppression of free speech in the United States, long hours, low wages, harsh conditions of work, cruel bosses, U.S. military aggression, owner’s violence against unions, and racist barriers across the land. They have addressed and sometimes helped overcome owners’ exploitation of workers on docks; in sweatshops, mills, mines, and factories; on railroads; in lumber camps and slaughterhouses; in cotton fields, farm fields, and fruit fields; and so forth. 

Woody’s music has lived, lives, and will continue to live “wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy; wherever a hungry newborn baby cries; where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air…wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand; or decent job or a helpin' hand; wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free,” to borrow lines from Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (a song inspired by John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” John Ford’s film version, and Woody Guthrie’s song “Ballad of Tom Joad,” – when Steinbeck heard the song he cursed Woody saying “that son of a b_____; he put down in 17 verses what it took me two years to write”). Tom Morello reminds us that we urgently need “World Wide Rebel Songs.” I think we can safely say that the growing and increasingly necessary body of “world wide rebel songs/music for the revolution” will contain, and continue to be nourished by and rise up from, Woody’s vital and inspiring assembly of rebel songs. Woody lives!

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doug morris, teaches critical literacy and critical pedagogy at Eastern New Mexico University, and plays, writes and sings protest music. Email: [email protected].

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