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What Would Woody Do?

Woody Guthrie reminds progressive citizens of a radical tradition upon which they might draw in the contemporary fight for social justice.


Donald Trump promises to solve all our problems by making America great again. Employing the rhetoric of demagoguery, Trump asserts that he will build a wall to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico, impose a ban on immigration and refugees from Islamic nations, bomb the “shit” out of the Islamic State, provide a tax bill that will considerably reduce taxes upon higher incomes, repeal and replace Obamacare, remove government regulation and controls over business while increasing our dependence on fossil fuels, increase military spending and the nuclear arsenal, and renegotiate trade deals. Trump’s sexism and association with right-wing racial hate groups, along with his contempt for such concepts as political correctness, seem to envision a return to the white America of the 1950s before the feminist revolution and Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This effort to take America back to the 1950s should encourage progressives to consider the post-World War II example of folksinger and political activist Woody Guthrie; raising the question—with apologies to Christian evangelicals--of “what would Woody do?”

An examination of Woody’s life and work demonstrates that he would hardly tolerate such reactionary politics without voicing his dissent and opposition. Woody challenged the discrimination confronted by migrants from Oklahoma and Texas when they were forced off their farms and faced hostility in California. He advocated public power for the people and embraced the labor movement. Despite being raised in a racist environment, he rallied to the cause of racial equality and fought against Jim Crow and the Klan. Woody also enlisted in the international fight against fascism; believing that the sacrifices endured by the people during the war would result in a world free from capitalist exploitation.

The postwar world did not usher in the millennium Woody had imagined. He was disappointed and discouraged by the Cold War, HUAC, and McCarthyism, but he refused to abandon the struggle for a better world. And Woody kept up the fight during a difficult time in his personal life. Suffering from Huntington’s disease, his behavior was sometimes erratic, and his marriage collapsed. But the greatest tragedy was the death of four-year-old Cathy Ann Guthrie in a fire only days after her birthday. Cathy symbolized the new world for which Woody had struggled during the war. In letters following her death, Woody praised Cathy’s progressive spirit at school and in the home. He also noted that in her final hours, she never complained; only expressing concern for her grieving parents and friends. Despite this crushing loss—which continued the tragic Guthrie family history with fires that killed his older sister Clara and injured his father—Woody maintained his efforts to forge that better world represented by Cathy.

Politically, Woody placed a great deal of faith in the union movement. In fact, he was entertaining striking workers when Cathy’s accident occurred. Combining his devotion to racial equality and organized labor, Woody believed the union idea would be the means for realizing John Steinbeck’s Preacher Casy’s “one big soul” and the folksinger’s concept of “commonism.” Before World War II, Woody fought to organize farmworkers in California and supported industrial unionism by the CIO among auto workers, electrical workers, and steelworkers. During the war, Woody joined the Merchant Marine and National Maritime Union while perceiving the global conflict as a struggle between the greed of fascism and the common humanity of the union idea.

After the war’s conclusion, Woody believed that he might witness the triumph of union solidarity. The post war environment, however, did not prove hospitable to organized labor. Seeking to roll back the gains made by unions during the New Deal and World War II, big business and reactionary politicians discredited labor leaders by preying upon the American public’s fears of the Cold War, Soviet Russia, and communism. Amid the climate of McCarthyism, the FBI and Congressional Committees such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) violated the civil liberties of American citizens, as labor leaders who supported reforms, racial unity, and collectivist solutions to the nation’s economic concerns were dismissed as communists. Labor’s gains were curtailed by repressive legislation such as the Taft-Hartley Act, and labor leaders with radical agendas were purged, while the union movement abandoned Woody’s dream of forging a more egalitarian society in favor of the bread and butter unionism of pensions, wages, hours, and working conditions for their members.

Meanwhile, union membership continues to decline in the United States, while the right to work movement gains traction and undermines labor organizations. Today, only about ten percent of workers are organized, and unions fail to provide a source of countervailing power to big business. This erosion of labor influence, exacerbated during the 1980s under the Reagan Presidency when striking members of the Professional Airline Traffic Controllers Organization were fired, has left American workers with little means to combat the forces of globalization and automation that have lain waste to the industrial heartland of the United States; this has resulted in many desperate voters placing their trust in the demagoguery of Donald Trump who has consistently opposed organized labor. In fact, Woody was an early critic of Fred Trump, the Donald’s father, for his policies of supporting segregated housing, a family business practice that Donald Trump has never disavowed. For progressives seeking to check the power of Trump and his billionaire allies, it is time to promote the organization of American workers and reawaken Woody’s union ideas. It will not be easy, as is the case for almost any cause worthy of the struggle. Woody committed himself to the union idea during the dark days of McCarthyism, and progressives today should follow his example rather than curse the darkness.

Woody was discouraged by the political climate and personal tragedies he encountered in post war America, but the folksinger remained in the fray until sidelined by illness. He enlisted his guitar and song writing abilities in the struggle against the KKK, supported organizing efforts by the CIO among Southern textile workers, and campaigned for the 1948 Progressive Party candidacy of Henry A. Wallace. For these activities, Woody was denounced as a communist, but such accusations did not deter the musician from fighting for his ideas of a more egalitarian society based upon the union idea and “commonism.”

Much time and energy have been wasted debating whether Woody was a member of the Communist Party. Labels did not matter much to Woody, and he often supported the communists because in the 1930s and 1940s the party backed workers’ rights, while battling against racism and fascism. He refused to be intimidated by the red-baiters and never denounced the party. Failing health prevented Woody from suffering the indignities of the blacklist visited upon associates such as Seeger.

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Woody also recognized that the concept of “commonism” was part of a larger historical movement to assure that the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence were bestowed upon all Americans. The folksinger was part of an indigenous American radicalism that was reflected in his music. Woody celebrated the courage of black abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman who fought against slavery, while also recognizing the bravery of Southern whites such as Stetson Kennedy who challenged the Klan and Jim Crow. The contributions of women to forging a more just society were eloquently addressed in the classic labor anthem, “Union Maid.”

The first red scare following World War I sought to obliterate the radical history of America in a wave of jingoistic patriotism by painting groups such as the IWW and Socialist Party as un-American. Thus, the fact that the Socialist Party had considerable appeal in Oklahoma and the American heartland is little known today, but Woody labored to keep this more radical past alive with compositions such as “1913 Massacre” and “Ludlow Massacre” that commemorate American workers, many of them immigrants fighting against capitalistic big business in order to feed their families. It is a legacy of struggle that deserves an honored place in the nation’s history classrooms.

In his Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti, Woody also told a story of discrimination against immigrants that is often forgotten today but remains extremely relevant in an era during which immigration is blamed for terrorism and economic decline. In a beautiful introduction to his songs on the Italian immigrants, Woody relates Sacco and Vanzetti to the migrant experience of the dust bowl refugees who fled Oklahoma and Texas in search of new opportunities, only to find intolerance and repression. Instead, Woody believes that America should be a land that celebrates diversity and welcomes immigrants into the community. This inclusive vision is also the message of Woody’s most famous composition, “This Land Is Your Land.” Woody’s radicalism is also apparent in the anti-imperialist themes of his Korean War song cycle.

Woody’s voice of protest was silenced by disease before a widespread discontent with the Vietnam War was manifest in American society, but as many historians have noted the origins of the Vietnam conflict may be found in the Korean War and early years of the Cold War which Woody was not afraid to question. Thus, Woody served as a historian of the indigenous American radicalism that has played a significant but often ignored role in the American past. As a historian, Woody reminds progressive citizens of a radical tradition upon which they might draw in the contemporary fight for social justice. Woody provides us with examples of a usable past.

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School.