Just a Hoping Machine

Woody's guitar says "This Machine Kills Fascists."

“The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.”

–Woody Guthrie

Here it is another Labor Day when we celebrate the achievements of American workers. For most of us it means a day off from work, some time to relax, be with friends and family, barbecue, and mark the semi-official end of summer.

I think the significance of this holiday is often forgotten, unlike say, Memorial Day, when we honor those who have died in military service. We should be mindful that that there are many other occupations where men and women put their lives on the line every day (coal miners come to mind) and that their contribution to our nation’s welfare is just as noble and needed as those who fight in war. We could remember, too, the courage and sacrifice it took to fight the fight for American worker’s rights. A fight that is not yet over.

Singer-songwriter and activist, Woody Guthrie was a great supporter of the American labor movement. Ironically, many of his songs were about the working man and woman who couldn’t find work. Read the lyrics to those songs and you’ll find that in light of our current economic situation, they could have been written yesterday.

Like this from “Blowin’ Down the Road”:

I’m a-lookin’ for a job at honest pay,
I’m a-lookin’ for a job at honest pay,
I’m a-lookin’ for a job at honest pay, Lord, Lord,
An’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way.

And “I Ain’t Got No Home”:

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

In songs like “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” Woody expressed his optimistic vision for a better future:

I’d better quit my talking, ’cause I told you all I know,
But please remember, pardner, wherever you may go,
The people are building a peaceful world, and when the job is done
That’ll be the biggest thing that man has ever done.

While surfing the web yesterday, I ran across a film forum where the archival clip below had been posted and one of the responses was this: “We could use another Guthrie right now.” I think Woody’s still here in spirit. There are many Woody’s here now and there will always be people like him around because there will always be a need. They are hoping machines. Brick by brick, song by song, heart by heart, they are building peace, because they have hope, and because they believe that from their efforts “There’s a better world that’s a-coming.”

I don’t know quite what to think when I hear compassion denigrated, the importance and effectiveness of social action and engagement dismissed  and disputed. Everyone has a right to see things as they please but it strikes me as rather sad. Living in this world, how can we not be engaged in the common struggle? Or, at the very least, supportive of it.

Ambrose Bierce once defined a cynic as someone who “sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” While Robert Kennedy famously said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

It’s hard not to be cynical from time to time. But I think that cynicism is a clog in our hoping machine. It’s a glitch that causes our machines to malfunction. The fight against cynicism is another weighty battle that must be won.

Compassion for compassion’s sake? That, parders, is what it’s all about. We practice compassion and work for a better world for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. The only thing to do. Those hoping machines that are tuned-up and in good working order understand this.

Anyway, here is some rare film footage  from a documentary produced in 1947, one of two surviving film clips of Woody Guthrie. At the beginning, he’s singing “South Carolina Blues” accompanied by Baldwin “Butch” Hawes, a member of the Almanac Singers. The second song is the traditional railroad tune “John Henry” with one of the greatest harp players of all time, Sonny Terry, and his partner, Brownie  McGhee on guitar. Enjoy.


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