Saturday, 16 July 2022 10:57

Tribute to a folk legend – Woody Guthrie, a radical icon

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Tribute to a folk legend – Woody Guthrie, a radical icon

To mark the 110th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birthday on July 14, 1912, here is an edited version of an interview with Bobbi and Steve Siegelbaum from the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus New York, by Randolph Oechslein and Eva Petermann. It was first published in 'Unsere Zeit' (UZ), the weekly paper of the German Communist Party.

UZ: Which songs would you choose for a performance in an homage to Woody Guthrie today?

Bobbi: This is actually a difficult question for at least three reasons: One is the sheer volume of Woody’s output which has been estimated at well over three thousand songs. Then there is the broad range of subjects - labour and union songs, Dust Bowl ballads, anti-fascist polemics, songs promoting electric power in the American West, peace songs, songs for children and so many more....

Steve: ......and there is the high quality of the songs, which demonstrate not only brilliant writing but a universality that makes them relevant to this day. So the question really becomes, not which songs to select, but which ones to leave out. here are the ones we think would best reflect who Woody was and why he remains so important today.  We have chosen a small representative number in each category, but could have included many dozens more:

This Land is Your Land - His best known and probably most important song.

SONGS ABOUT MIGRANT WORKERS: Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos) and Pastures of Plenty

DUST BOWL BALLADS: So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You, Do Re Mi and Talking Dust Bowl Blues 

ANTI-FASCIST WORLD WAR II SONGS: Tear the Fascists Down and Sinking of the Reuben James

LABOUR AND UNION: Union Maid, 1913 Massacre and Ludlow Massacre

SONGS OF THE NEW DEAL: Roll on Columbia and Grand Coulee Dam

CHILDREN’S SONGS: Why, Oh Why and Riding in My Car

PEACE SONGS: Peace Call and I’ve Got to Know

UZ: Would you mind telling us which of them are your personal favourites?

Bobbi: One of my personal favorites is Deportees.

Steve: Hobo’s Lullaby.

UZ: And which songs by Woody Guthrie have featured in your playlist?

Bobbi: It was Pete Seeger who brought Woody’s music to all of us. So from the very beginning, Walkabout has always included Woody’s songs in our performances. We have probably sung This Land is Your Land more than any other song in our repertoire. It is really our (and it should be America’s) anthem.

 UZ: In what way has Woody Guthrie been influencing or inspiring other musicians?

Steve: As we mentioned earlier, Woody - through the conduit of Pete Seeger - is generally considered to be the father of American political protest folksinging and songwriting. On many occasions Pete was heard to declare that he knew of two people in his life whom he considered to be a genius, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays, from Pete and the Weavers.

I believe that Pete was referring primarily to two things. One was Woody’s unsurpassed ability to create meaningful, sensitive, human songs out of virtually any event, no matter how mundane or minor. And he did it prolifically, simply, and seemingly effortlessly. In this, I believe Woody’s genius recalls that of Mozart. Then there is his ability to tell a story and create clear images that instantly engage the listener, the very essence of songwriting.  

All of the great American (and other) folksingers who have followed Woody have been influenced and inspired by him. One need only recall the early Bob Dylan, but also Tom Paxton, John McCutcheon, Ani di Franco, who even performed together with Nora, Guthrie´s daughter; Tom Chapin, the UK’s Leon Rosselson and Billy Bragg...

UZ:...It was to him that Nora Guthrie gave more than 3000 unpublished poems that herself and her mother had found in Woody´s assets, absolutely unexpectedly. Billy Bragg then produced the legendary album Mermaid Avenue in 1998, together with Wilco. In this context we should also mention Hans-Eckardt Wenzel, born and raised in the GDR.

Steve: Yes, as I was saying, literally hundreds of others. While protest folksinging has always been with us in some form or other, what is known as the folk music boom or folk music revival in the United States can be said to have begun around the 1950s. By that time, Woody was no longer active, having been hospitalized with the disease that would take his life at age 55. But his influence, first and foremost on Pete Seeger, and then on those Pete inspired, is still strongly felt today. And it is likely that it will continue to be felt in centuries to come, even by those who don’t know his name.

UZ: How does Woody’s music resonate with young people?

Steve: The first part is a very difficult one to answer because more than ever, the listening preferences and experiences among young people are extremely diffuse. There are so many genres and niches. However, it is fair to say that only a tiny few would listen to folk music, as such. It is likely that several of Woody’s songs for children are enjoyed by youngsters, but rarely are his songs and/or recordings played on the radio. On the other hand, there are many rockers and others who have come across them on the internet and Youtube and found something inspirational in their “discovery.” His influence is always there, whether they know it or not.

UZ: What about the kids you encounter in your school appearances?

 Bobbi: The children we sing for (and with) in schools respond very positively to our music. Many of them know This Land is Your Land and perhaps one or two others. But they also enjoy the songs of Pete and other descendants of Woody. We have also engaged the kids by linking the music to events and names with which they are familiar, such as Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle.

For us and for several other Walkabouters, doing music with schoolkids is our favourite activity.

UZ: We can remember Pete Seeger singing Woody Guthrie`s This land is your land together with Bruce Springsteen at Barack Obama´s inauguration in 2009.

Steve: For me, and probably for many American leftists, the singing of This Land was unfortunately the high point of the Obama presidential years. Although the huge majority of African Americans understandably remained strong Obama supporters, his failures, rooted in his adherence to the Democratic Party’s strong connection to the ruling corporate imperialist class, are what marked his eight years in office. So in choosing Pete to sing at the inauguration of Obama, as he did in so many other cases, presented us with a feeling of hope that was never fulfilled.

The most important aspect of it all was that when the proposal was put to Pete, he agreed only on the condition that he would sing ALL the verses. By that he meant the verse that exposes the failure of capitalism:

In the squares of the city, by the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling (that)
This land was made for you and me.

And the most radical, communist verse of all:

Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me
Was a great big sign, said “Private Property”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.

UZ: Woody Guthrie had this provocative inscription on his guitar This machine kills fascists. Do you think that his political radicalism might turn people off nowadays?

Steve: There is more than one answer to this question. Many musicians have emulated Woody by putting messages on their instruments. In the folk music world, most famous is Pete’s banjo which says, This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender. Historically, the US has successfully dealt with the political radicalism of artists in a variety of ways. They have been blacklisted as Pete and the Weavers were; they have been subjected to government harassment and restriction as Paul Robeson was; they have been commercially marginalized as so many others have been.

Bobbi: However, after these artists died or are no longer considered “dangerous” by the ruling class, they receive more benign treatment from the media. Sometimes they are exalted as cultural icons. Pete is probably the best example of this. As for Woody, he is probably better known now than he was during his lifetime. Remember, his creative and performing years were relatively brief. It is fair to say that most Americans are not familiar with his name… even if they do know a couple of his songs.

UZ: Can music change the world do you think?

Steve: To quote one of my very favourite lines from Pete’s song Letter to Eve: "If only music could bring peace, I’d only be a musician."

Both Woody and Pete recognized that in music, there is great power to move and motivate people. This, of course, is something virtually all religions have understood throughout millennia.  

Bobbi: It is why so many radical and progressive movements, from Joe Hill’s Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), to the labour movements of the 1930s, to the Civil Rights movement in the US, and so many more employed the tunes from popular hymns and spirituals to which they set new words. To this very day, songs like Solidarity Forever, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ´Round, We Shall Not Be Moved, and Which Side Are You On are frequently sung at rallies, marches and other street actions.

Steve: I should have added that probably the best and most important carrier of Woody and Pete’s legacy is my pal John McCutcheon. His fiercely powerful and militant song, The Machine, was inspired by Woody’s guitar. McCutcheon wrote it just after the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. To quote just one of his verses:

But I was present when
We liberated Birkenau
I still see every face
I didn’t fight the Nazis
To allow them in this place.

With his verses John reminded people of Woody´s fight against Nazism: “I was present when we liberated Birkenau. I still see every face. I didn´t fight the Nazis to allow them in this place.“

I would say, then, that while music by itself cannot change the world, it is perhaps the best tool for organizing to make that change.

UZ: Thank you so much for this interview, dear friends! And thank you for your untiring commitment and for your past and future willingness to come to Germany to the Pressefest if possible. Please give our kind regards and best wishes to all members of the Chorus. Solidarity forever! No pasaran!

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