[Marxism] As Woody Turns 100, We Protest Too Little

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 19 12:35:36 MDT 2012

NY Times August 18, 2012
As Woody Turns 100, We Protest Too Little

In October the Kennedy Center will throw a centennial party for Woody 
Guthrie, a star-studded concert with tickets topping out at $175. It 
will be America’s ultimate tribute to a beloved troubadour. “Through his 
unique music, words and style,” the Kennedy Center says, “Guthrie was 
able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his 

Poor Woody. The life and music of America’s great hobo prophet, its Dust 
Bowl balladeer, boiled down to this: He brought attention to the 
critical issues of his day.

Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough. They 
are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. 
They become safe enough for the Postal Service. “For a man who fought 
all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning 
defeat,” Arlo Guthrie said in 1998, when his father was put on a 32-cent 

Will Kaufman’s book “Woody Guthrie, American Radical” tried to set the 
record straight last year. The sentimental softening and warping of 
Woody’s reputation began early, even as he was dying, in the 1960s. But 
under the saintly folk hero has always been an angry vigilante — a 
fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser who liked to 
eviscerate his targets, sometimes with violent imagery. He was a man of 
many contradictions, but he was always against the rich and on the side 
of the oppressed.

He wrote hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people. Most have never heard 
them. Many were never set to music, and only a relative handful were 
ever recorded. The most famous, “This Land Is Your Land,” is too often 
truncated and misinterpreted. America has a lot of warmth for Woody, but 
maybe warmth means the pan is off the flame.

Woody’s musical heirs tried their best. But as a protest leader, Bob 
Dylan is done. Arlo is a Republican; he endorsed Ron Paul in 2008. Pete 
Seeger is still around, bless him. At President Obama’s inauguration he 
sang the neglected verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” condemning 
private property, with Bruce Springsteen and a large choir. But Pete is 
very old. Bruce writes brilliant stuff, but are people paying attention? 
None of his darkly challenging populist songs have been able to keep 
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — a Republican who likes to demonize 
labor unions — from being his near-obsessive fan.

It’s hard to be a troubadour with dangerous ideas if people refuse to be 
challenged or offended by them. Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, 
is a hard-baked right-winger who wants to bleed the government so it has 
no money to help people but all it needs to wage war. Yet he says one of 
his favorite bands is Rage Against the Machine, whose members gave 
inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street movement and organized resistance 
to the anti-immigrant freak-out in Arizona. This boggles the mind.

Not to sound too morose: Billy Bragg, the British folk-punk-rock singer 
and Woody Guthrie devotee who sang his own verse of “The Internationale” 
at a 90th birthday party for Mr. Seeger in 2009, says that creative 
dissent never died, it just moved on. It’s there in hip-hop and other 
musical forms; it’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s people banging pots 
and pans in the street. And while American folk-protest singers may 
occupy the tiniest niche on public radio today, people power is still 
toppling tyrants, mostly overseas.

Some old-schoolers and young artists are rising to the occasion here at 
home, for the new era of greedy bankers, suffering migrants and 
dispossessed homeowners. The Woody Guthrie Archives has been helping 
musicians turn a huge trove of his unpublished, unsung words into music. 
The singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke released an album in 2008, called 
“The Works,” that is made up almost entirely of Woody’s lyrics.

Other musicians are making their own statements. Rick Good, a banjo 
player from Ohio, has a topical YouTube video that I like. “It’s not for 
sale,” he sings, referring to the White House, while grandchildren pass 
in front of the camera to blast the fat cats with hand-drawn placards, 
sort of like a Bob Dylan video from long, long ago. Mr. Good won’t be at 
the Kennedy Center hootenanny, but a few like-minded musicians will be 
there, including the guitarist Ry Cooder, who has reached an angry-Woody 
phase in his own long career. His most recent songs are pure politics, 
torn fresh from the headlines, with titles like “No Banker Left Behind,” 
“Guantánamo” and “The Wall Street Part of Town.”

His latest record, “Election Special,” comes out this month. It begins 
with “Mutt Romney Blues,” sung from the point of view of the frightened, 
roof-strapped dog, who stands in for all of us. “Ol’, Master Boss, cut 
me down, I won’t spread that story ’round ... And the mean things that 
you’re trying to do, I won’t blow no whistle on you.”

Mr. Cooder admits that some of the songs are bitter. But someone has to 
sing them.

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