Ah, here it is September and another Labor Day. How time flies . . . Seems like we just celebrated Labor Day a year ago . . .
And, as I did last year, I am using the occasion to talk about one of my heroes, that great champion of working men and women, one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known as Woody.
Harold Leventhal, Guthrie’s manager, was a pretty smart guy. In the 1950’s Woody was in the hospital with Huntington’s Disease and unable to perform or write any more. Leventhal wanted to find a way to keep Woody’s compositions before the public. He hit upon the idea of putting them in the songbooks of America’s schoolchildren. Clever move. As a result, who knows how many kids born years after he wrote them, learned to love Woody’s songs, and long before they ever heard of Bob Dylan, either.
I was one of those kids. I can remember distinctly our 3rd grade music instructor teaching us to sing “Roll on, Columbia” one day. She also talked about the man who wrote the song, this guy named Woody, who rambled around the country and made up songs about the people he met and the things he saw. Sounded pretty cool to me. Ever since that afternoon I’ve felt a special connection to Woody’s life and songs.
Although my early life was definitely urban, I was born and partly raised in Wichita, Kansas only about a hundred miles or so from Woody’s birthplace in Okemah, Oklahoma. Woody and I come from basically the same stock. His maternal grandfather was Kansas dirt farmer. So was my paternal great-grandfather, and at roughly the same time. My mother’s family came from Missouri, where according to my grandmother, her mother went to square dances with Frank James, who along with his brother, Jesse, robbed trains and stuff. Then there is the Great Depression, the Dustbowl, and World War II. My parents went through all that. While I didn’t experience it myself, when Woody sings about having the Dust Bowl Blues, I feel a real kinship to the people and the places and the time that he’s singing about.
Woody Guthrie was committed to the American labor movement. He was not a man who figured in the great events of labor history like Big Bill Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, John L. Lewis, Joe Hill, or Cesar Chavez. Woody’s contribution to the cause was mostly in the form of song and inspiration. But, he was right in the thick of the battle, singing his songs in the migrant camps, at the union meetings, and on the picket lines.
He had a unique philosophy about unions, as he did about most things. Joe Klein, in Woody Guthrie: A Life, wrote about how Woody formulated his concept while serving in the Merchant Marine during WWII,
It began with Cisco [Houston] and Jimmy’s [Longhi] running debate on hope and mortality, and burst into full flower with a stray phrase from a shipboard chaplain one Sunday morning: “As a rule, any activity of the mind which tends to show us the real ‘oneness’ of all things is great.”
Woody took off from there, using the word ‘union’ as a central proposition, tracing it from Buddha to the C.I.O. in a series of letters to Marjorie [his wife]. “The Chinese called it ‘yogin’ or ‘union.’ The Indians called it ‘prana’ or ‘energy,’” he wrote, adding that every great religious leader had believed in the same unifying concept . . .”
Woody Guthrie literally wrote over a thousand songs in his lifetime, most of them based on melodies from old folk and country tunes.
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you’ve not any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”
If you’ve got an extra 10 minutes today, please watch the short documentary below that was produced by a young woman named Melissa Mergner in 2006, when she was a 14-year-old high school student. I think that’s pretty cool, too. In it, you hear Woody himself talking about his life, along with the voices of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Arlo and Nora Guthrie.
But first, since I know you have a least 3 minutes to spare, do yourself a favor and listen to Woody sing “Better World,” accompanied by Will Geer (Grandpa on “The Waltons”), a song that reflects not only the struggle and search for hope of the labor movement but also that of all the people in the world caught in the horrific war still raging when this song was recorded in 1944.
Woody Guthrie: Voice of the Common Man by Melissa Mergner