Friday, 14 July 2017

Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie ( 14/7/ 1912 -3/10/1967) - Folk Revolutionary

Today marks the  birthday of legendary left-winger, songwriter, poet of the people and musician Woody Guthrie. A man who celebrated the little guy, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised.
Tragedy first struck when Woody was still a young child. His father was a land trader, and soon made enough money in oil-mad Okemah to build a nice six-room home for the family; yet shortly after the Guthries moved in, the house burned down. By then, the depression was already beginning to bite, and his father couldn't afford another one. For the next few years, the Guthries moved from house to house as their fortunes got worse; and as if the falling family fortunes weren't enough, human tragedy struck too. Woody's favourite sister, Clara, died after being horribly burned by the explosion of an oil stove.
 Not long after, this  Woody's mother suffering from Huntingtons disease was sent to a mental asylum where she later died. A saddened and a broken man, Woody's dad did his best to keep happiness alive in the broken family: he would sing to his children, but, remembered Woody, "I could tell by the sounds of his voice that he was not singing to make his own self feel good, but to try and make us kids feel better." Then the family home burned down for the second time.
A growing youth by then, Guthrie  overcame his own  personal hardship and tragedy and set of to seek  his fortune far from the sad memories of his childhood. Hitch-hiking across America with a guitar on his back and paintbrushes in his pocket, he made for  California, joining the crowds of Okies seeking a better life in the West. He mixed with the migrant farm workers, and learned their trade, singing about it in some of his finest "Dustbowl Ballads"; He became a spokesman for those Americans affected by the Great Depression and the dust storms. and sung out to sufferers of the Depression, the Dust Bowl era, and the second World War. He advocated the unions and scorned the corporations. But the formulas for writing the “people’s songs” didn’t rest in social justice alone; Guthrie’s wit, humor and home-spun vernacular attracted too and avoided pretension.
In the 1930s, Guthrie was among the many who climbed out of the western states’ disastrous Dustbowl; he brought with him original songs that catalogued the sights and emotions of the day: “So Long, Its Been Good to Know You”, “I’m Blowin’ Down This Old Dusty Road”, “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”, among many more. Once in California, Woody soon learned that it was no land of milk and honey. However, instead of toiling in fruit orchards, he became a radio performer, offering his old-timey and topical music to the southerners who’d migrated to the West Coast. While the station manager tried desperately to hold Woody to the country standards, somewhere in the mix was an original called “Mr. Tom Mooney is Free”. This 1939 composition told of the recently pardoned labor activist, a cause celebre in Left circles, who’d been wrongly imprisoned for 22 years. Very soon, he got a reputation as an outspoken defender of the poor and the exploited, and a well-armed enemy of those who exploited them. "I saw the hundreds of thousands of stranded, broke, hungry, idle, miserable people that lined the highways.... I heard these people sing in their jungle camps, and I sang songs I made up for them," he wrote.
Soon, Woody was renowned as a militant labor unionist, a champion of the public cause against private greed.In 1941, he was taken on by the Bonneville Power Administration, a state-run organisation, to help them win public approval for two vast dam projects on the Columbia River. The BPA project was hotly contested by the owners of private power companies, who did not want to lose their monopoly over the electricity supply in the region. Woody's collection of "Columbia River Songs" is a major contribution to the social history of the American West in the 1930s and early 40s, fixing in song and poetry the trials of a generation of rural Americans. In part thanks to Woody, the dams were built.
From his first song, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya” which he wrote about a huge dust storm while living in Pampa, Texas, Woody Guthrie chronicled the changing world that he saw.
He could describe the deprivations of migrant workers but still insist that "pastures of plenty must always be free.” his songs touch on issues ranging from immigration (“Deportee”) see earlier post, about this song here,

to corrupt financial institutions (“The Jolly Banker”)

to the plight of the working class (“Union Maid”) — age-old problems that continue to dominate the modern news. He re-wrote some of his songs, lambasting the racist developer/landlord, Fred Trump, father of the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. A developer who made a fortune, not only through the construction of "public" housing projects but also through collecting the rents on them. Woody used his songs and other creative works as social commentary, promoting social justice issues such as treating all people fairly no matter what colour or economic status, political belief or place of origin.
The radicalism he brought into his songs was seldom forced; it was organically and seamlessly connected with a kind of humanistic appreciation of working people’s everyday struggles. He was, in his own words, “out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world.” songs that were made for you and me. Although he was unblinking in the face of suffering and injustice, he had a persistent streak of optimism. He seemed really to believe that music could change the world for the better, confidently writing on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists.” He was a radical, a revolutionary who believed if imperialists raised their ugly heads, it was time to battle them in bloody struggles. To the Fascists, he sent the ultimate warning:

“I’ll bomb their towns and bomb their cities
Sink their ships beneath the tides,
I’ll win this war, but till I do, babe,
I could not be satisfied.”

Guthrie’s ‘machine’ indeed ‘killed Fascists’. And he appealed to human reasoning through radical folk renditions that founded the landscape of protest music worldwide. And he never faltered from why he needed to sing what he did.

Woody Guthrie - Tear the fascists down.

Woody Guthrie - All you fascists Bound to lose. 

Woody Guthrie is also remembered for “This Land is Your Land”, his anthem reclaiming America for ordinary people. It was his own contemptuous response to the success of “God Bless America. It is often considered the nation's second national anthem

Many of the things he concerns himself with in song in the late 1930s are still with us today and though its disconcerting to know we haven’t solved those things, at the same time it’s reassuring that Guthrie’s music is still there to shed light on these issues. During hard times, people who are struggling to find a emotional accessible moral philosophy that can give hope can still find it in the words of this poet of the people Woody Guthrie. He taught us that an artist must not be confined to the world of imagination alone. The battlefield is an unequal world and the war against injustice is absolutely on. Until that war is won, the artist must not be satisfied!
In the 1950s, Woody was one of the many artists and writers to fall victim to the MacCarthyist witch-hunts for supposed "Communists". Publishers gave up publishing his collections, and his most famous songs, such as "This Land is My Land", were presented as "anonymous".
By the late 1940s, Guthrie's health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. It was finally determined that he was suffering  himself from Huntington's disease, this terrible se, a genetic disorder inherited from his mother.Increasingly unable to control his muscles, an incurable victim of a slowly spreading paralysis he  was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, New Jersey, from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital (now Kingsboro Psychiatric Center) in East Flat Bush until 1966, and finally at  Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, New York, until his tragic death in 1967 aged only 55. During the last years of his life, he lay in bed, a dying hero, forgotten by many but regularly visited by a small band of  faithfull , many of whom were later to make sure that after his death, Woody would not be forgotten.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people was inspired by folk singers such as Guthrie. These "folk revivalists" became more politically aware in their music than those of the previous generation.  By the time of his death, his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to them through the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Ramblin Jack Elliot,
Thank you Woody Guthrie, a folk revolutionary who continues to inspire and strike a chord or two. His songs and time remain eternal.

Revolutionary Mind - Woody Guthrie

Night is here again, baby,
I'm stretched out on my bed
Seeing all kinds of crazy notions
Running through my head

I need a progressive woman;
I need an awfully liberal woman.
There ain’t no reactionary baby
Can ease my revolutionary mind.

One hand is on my pillow,
One hand is on my head,
I see a million nightmares
Tearing around inside my head;

I need a progressive woman
I need an awful liberal woman
I need a social conscious woman
To ease my revolutionary mind.

If I could only make you see, babe,
I ache and pain and bleed,
I know you’d come a runnin;
If you blistered both your feet.

I need a progressive woman
I need an awful liberal woman
I need a social conscious woman
To ease my revolutionary mind.

All you fascists bound to lose  - Woody Guthrie

I’m gonna tell you fascists
You may be surprised
The people in this world
Are getting organized
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose

Race hatred cannot stop us
This one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow
And greed has got to go
You’re bound to lose

You fascists bound to lose.
All of you fascists bound to lose:
I said, all of you fascists bound to lose:
Yes sir, all of you fascists bound to lose:
You’re bound to lose! You fascists:
Bound to lose!

People of every color
Marching side to side
Marching ‘cross these fields
Where a million fascists dies
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose!

I’m going into this battle
And take my union gun
We’ll end this world of slavery
Before this battle’s won
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose!

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