Woody Guthrie to Judge Thayer: No Sweet Music

Readers of ZNet know how the "system" works, but who among us has not wanted to take certain individuals by the shoulders and force them to face the consequences of their actions. When I was a kid, we used to have a dog that would occasionally relieve himself right in front of the TV set. To punish him, my mother used to force his nose to within millimeters of the offensive steaming heap. "Look what you’ve done," she would say. And there’d be no way to gloss over the fact of the situation. He had created a great big pile of shit.

Eighty years ago today, on August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were murdered by a corrupt legal system and a racist and xenophobic political culture. These two working men – Italian immigrants, World War I draft dodgers, anarchists – were accused of armed robbery and murder and sentenced to die by a court that needed a scapegoat more than it wanted justice. However, it was not only a faceless, nameless system that was responsible for denying appeals, ignoring testimony, and signing off on executions. There was a person behind the pen, and in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, it was Judge Webster Thayer.

To honor the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti on this, the eightieth anniversary of their death, I am reprinting a letter I came across in the liner notes of the Smithsonian Folkways "The Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti." (http://www.akpress.org/2000/items/balladsofsaccovanzetti) It is by Woody Guthrie, and it is addressed directly to Judge Thayer, and it is a most brilliant, poetic, poignant cry of "Look what you’ve done."

According to the liner notes, the letter was probably written in 1947, 14 years after Judge Thayer died. It is testimony not only to how deeply Guthrie felt the tragic loss of Sacco and Vanzetti, but how he understood the way that power dehumanizes the master as well. It is a raw, unedited soliloquy against those who choose a "tiptoeing life on rugs and carpets," who "escape through varnished doors," and who live in such a state of fear and mental shut-down that they are, in fact, "never alive."

To Bush and Cheney, then, and to the corporate executives and mercenaries, and to all the board-room-dwelling paper-pushers whose pens rob and kill as surely as any weapon or electric chair, put your nose in this:

"To Judge Thayer" by Woody Guthrie

I would like to paint you a picture with strokes of electricity, to make you see, Judge Thayer, the wrong thing that you done. It would take something faster than firesparks to send this picture around the world, but the blood of Sacco and Vanzetti did flow around the world, and the picture was in the minds of people before that hand of your button pusher could push your electric button and take his finger away again.

I say the blood flowed, but it was not the blood that ran, because you did not hang them, you did not shoot them, but you did torture them, you did insult and abuse them, you made comics and puppets out of them to dance and to dangle in front of your sad eye. You set their souls free with a spark of Massachusetts electricity because you were so unwise as to think that this would hold and silence their voices.

You killed Bartolomo [sic] Vanzetti, a poet and a fighter, and you killed Nicolo [sic] Sacco because he taught workers how to get together and talk about their work. The reason that you killed these two men was because you lost your spiritual connection with all men, and you did not believe that there was any such a thing as a spiritual connection between any men. You did not believe in the mental ability of the ordinary workingman and woman to stand together and to meet together, to speak their problems over in a free land together.

This is a rough way to try to tell you because you are used to nicer and politer ways, ways memorized out of books, ways learned in your college buildings, and in your schools. You have taken your hide and shelter in these halls of learning for a long time, but I would not call you a man that has learned anything. You fell onto the patter of action that you used over and over till you wore your mind out, and then you thought that this same calamity had happened to everybody else. You lived a quiet life, a tiptoeing life on rugs and carpets. You found some kind of dark world there in your caverns with your stalagmites and you wanted to hang on to whatever little nervous nightmare that you were having. You did not want to be kicked out, nor relieved, nor have somebody else take your bench and judge people from it. You wanted to keep on stepping down your back stairways, through your varnished doors, yes. You certainly did not want any wild gang of illiterate workers busting into your court room nor into your house and telling you that you had lost your job. You somehow got scared, then to make out like you were not scared, you walked all around and shouted that you were not scared. (People knew that you were because you yelled that you were not.)

You got afraid of people all around you. You really felt afraid of every person that came close to you. You did not always say this out loud, but you know very well that you felt this way every hour of every day. You felt it even worse after dark. You did not even tell your wife nor your closest friends how scared you were. You were not only afraid of people, but the tides and the seasons scared you and you came to be afraid of the weather. Your seasons were things of locks and keys and your sleep was a wild running nightmare, but you used all kinds of tricks to make your face look like it was not afraid of the people. You feared the working people. You feared the business people. You feared the idle classes and you feared the racketeers. The world was a puddle of manure and mud and all of the faith on this planet could not change human nature’s greed.

I don’t know tonight as I write this whether you are alive or dead. It had been a long time since you pulled the electric trigger on Sacco and Vanzetti, but it could be that you are still dwelling in your same body. I had rather be dead than to be a man of your cut and caliber. It would be wrong for me to wonder if you are living or dead because it is truer to say that you never was alive. I mean warm alive like most of all my loud and noisy neighbors around me here in Coney Island.

If your spirit is out of your carcass, I certainly would not blame it, for if I was a spirit I would not dwell for long in any such a body as you own. If I was a body I would not live with any such a spirit as yours. If I was a mind I would not play any sweet music inside your brain, and if I was a soul I would not bring any very big visions into your heart. If I was the Creator I would undo you and if I was the Maker I would unmake you and take the clay and try again. I cannot curse your soul too much because you may be remolded into a union organizer. I cannot curse your clay too much because you will fertilize some nice corn and grain and drift out across some dandy pasture lands where horses nicker and the cattle graze.

You did not wish for Sacco nor Vanzetti neither one to dwell on our planet here, and so you schemed and you figured out a way to take them away. If you had been a true man wise or unwise you would have never let your drunkest and scaredest nightmare cause you to do such a deed. You would have known that you would wake up ten million souls around the world to fight to enter into their union. You would have known that you were not only kicking your own pants off of the judging bench, but several hundred thousand judges and shysters of your stripe and breed. You would have known this if your mind had not been so completely blind. I cannot rile myself too much to curse you because I am not too much of a curser, and I know that you did, in one way, wake the workers of the world up, but you did it in the craziest, greediest and most terrible way that you could. You called our attention to the fact that if it was geniuses of your level who own and rule our world and make its laws, judge us good and bad, to be alive or to be dead, then, well, this was the one thing that put us on the move and tore your world down faster than ten grenades would have.

You are a big judge. You may be living and you may be dying. You may already be dead. No matter what your natural estate (sp????????) may be, I realize that I must speak to you polite and nice even if I hate your royal guts. And so this (is/?????????) why tonight I hold my criticism down to just the one single planet called the earth. If I was to let my words fly at you like I really feel I ought to. I would chase you up one universe and down the next, up one glacial age and down the next, up one history book and down the other, over several icebergs and out through several jungles. I would rail you and scale you, jail you and bail you, I would mail you and nail you and assail you and frail you. I would run you ragged and craosseyed, cockeyed and whopperjawed. I would not let one drop of your blood rest easy nor one cell of your brain miss my trimming. I think of your old age and your natural condition of a tablet of salt, and I will not try to take your coyote heart out of you because in all of your horror and terror you have ignorantly defeated your own self and your own class. You have done the only earthly thing that could undo your entire class, and it might well be that you were created just to perform this one act and then no more. Oh, I know that you performed a lot of other lesser and smaller acts, but they just broke the ground for the deed that you did to Sacco and Vanzetti.

For more information about the Sacco and Vanzetti case, see ZNet’s excerpt of Howard Zinn’s book A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=12575) and an interview with him by Sonali Kolhatkar and Gabriel San Roman (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=9551).





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