Monday, July 16, 2012

Woody Guthrie Today, and Woody Guthrie the Communist

Re-posted from Selecting Stones
by L. W. Denton
Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma.  Guthrie has long been a controversial figure in Oklahoma and elsewhere for the simple reason that he was a communist.

Woody Guthrie with his Guitar

Woody Guthrie with his Guitar:
“This Machine Kills Fascists”

Woody Guthrie is most famous for two things: First, that he wrote the song “This Land is Your Land”, and second, that he once said, “The best thing that I did in 1936 was to sign up with the Communist Party.”  It is widely known that Guthrie was exaggerating with the words “sign up”, as he was not a full member of the Communist Party.  However, he did work with the Communist Party extensively, writing regularly for The Daily Worker.  No wonder, then, that today’s direct descendant of the old Daily Worker, the People’s World, ran an article yesterday on Okemah’s most famous Marxist son.  Another indirect scion of the Daily Worker, the Oklahoma Workers’ Monthly, took a moment to celebrate Woody Guthrie, too.  And even though over the past 50 years “This Land is Your Land” has been stolen by right-wing nationalists and mistaken for a celebration of American chauvinism, the original version of the song penned by Guthrie makes its Marxist viewpoint loud and clear.  A verse that is always omitted today shows that Guthrie proudly stood, as any communist would, for the ultimate abolition of private property:
“As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, it said ‘Private Property’
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.”
Fascists, of course, have always stood for Private Property every bit as much as anti-Semitism or anything else, and so it makes sense why Guthrie would use his guitar as a machine to kill them.
Again, it seems today that everyone misses the original point of “This Land is Your Land”.  After all, most of us have been indoctrinated since the third grade to believe that the song is sending the same message as “God Bless America” when it is, in fact, doing quite the opposite.  The tragic fate of the song, however, serves to demonstrate the greater tragic fate of Woody Guthrie’s legacy as a whole.  No doubt Woody is rolling in his grave at a large part of the way he is received today.  As a deeply political man, Guthrie would surely be upset to know that his politics have been essentially whitewashed out of his life’s story.
Each year since 1998, the town of Okemah has hosted the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.  The event’s website is careful not to mention anything political.  In the recollection of Woody Guthrie’s life story, it seems that in reality everyone knows he was a communist.  But in order to make Guthrie an “acceptable” figure, history has been rewritten to deny Guthrie’s communism, or simply not talk about the issue.  There is a huge elephant in the room, and everyone prefers to stay quiet.  An Oklahoma entertainment monthly, The Current, recently ran an article on this year’s milestone WoodyFest in Okemah.  Since the event coincides this year with Guthrie’s centenary, the article — by Dale Ann Deffer — took the time to include a lengthy biographical sketch.  Deffer mentions over and over again that Guthrie passionately followed the cause of the working class (and that he didn’t care about making money), but chooses to sidestep the obvious implications of these facts about the singer.  The stated cause of the Communist Party has always been the objective best interests of the working class.  And just incidentally, communists tend as a general rule not to care too much about making money, either.  At the tail end of the article, Deffer writes of Woody’s 92-year-old sister Mary Jo, who still lives in Okemah:
“She is said to have worked tirelessly for years to wipe out some of the verbal attacks on Guthrie due to his unusual lifestyle and the fact that he wrote a weekly column for The Sunday Worker which was a Communist publication.  He was said to espouse socialism at a time when it was very unpopular.  Currently, several townspeople in Okemah when asked about this association believe those attacks were unjustified.”
Woody Guthrie
Why is it an attack to call Woody Guthrie a “socialist”?  Woody Guthrie would have called himself a socialist with no reservation.  Why does everyone speak in shame that Woody Guthrie wrote a column in the Communist Party’s newspaper?  Woody Guthrie was presumably quite proud of his work for the Communist Party, or else, why would he have done it?  Why would Guthrie have bragged that he signed up with the Communist Party in 1936 — when he had, in fact, not done so — unless he was quite proud to call himself a communist?  And why is there a need to falsify history and say that socialism was unpopular during the Dust Bowl years?  Socialism and communism were extremely popular during the Dust Bowl years, as any historian of any political persuasion would readily tell you.  The real history, therefore, is quite different.  Instead, “socialism” is “unpopular” today, not when Woody Guthrie was alive.  Since that time, and specifically since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 (look it up), the working class political movement has suffered decade after decade of defeat at the hands of big business and big capital, along with a subtle, clever, and yet relentless campaign to make everyone forget how working class politics and communism used to be one and the same thing.
As a part of this long process, the true story of Woody Guthrie became a taboo that nobody could talk about.  And so the dangerous verses of “This Land is Your Land” had to be removed in order to make the song palatable for a world in which big capital rules uncontested — the same world in which we are now politely asked to mistake the openly anti-worker position of somebody like Ron Paul for a path to liberation.  The Red Scare and McCarthyism, therefore, never really ended, and Woody Guthrie became another victim of the falsification of history.  The only difference is that now “red-baiting” has been replaced by a blanket of silence, one designed to keep working men and women from ever daring to ask why capitalist America gives them so little of its extraordinary riches.
Oklahomans should be proud of Woody Guthrie, and proud of their state’s great Marxist heritage.  Guthrie, after all, is only one of many communists to come out of Oklahoma.

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