Another Labor Day weekend is upon us, which for many people means summer’s end, the last big barbecue of the season, back to school, so on and so forth. Unlike Memorial Day, which we mark with commemorative ceremonies and concerts, very little is done to bring our attention to the meaning of Labor Day. It is in short, a celebration of the American labor movement, and I invite you to learn about the history of the holiday by visiting this Wikipedia page.
As for this piece, it is a reworking of my 2011 Labor Day post.
To me Labor Day and Woody Guthrie are synonymous. Woody had witnessed the exploitation of workers all across the United States. The word that was synonymous with labor for him was union. Woody Guthrie was committed to the union movement. He was convinced that American workers would find justice, equality, and security if they just unionized. A little poem from Woody’s notebook reads,
Ants got unions and so’ve these bees
Bosses don’t want union for you and me
Woody spent his life supporting the labor movement by singing his songs in the migrant camps, at the union meetings, and on picket lines – but he was not there just to cajole them into organizing, he was also there to lift their spirits and to remind them of their basic humanity.
He had a unique philosophy about unions, as he did about most things. Actually, his take on this word is not surprising because Woody considered himself a student of Eastern philosophy. 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 . . .”
Cisco and Jimmy, by the way, were fellow artists who enlisted in the Merchant Marines with Woody, and somehow the trio ended up shipping together and having what Woody’s website describes as “humorous, dangerous, and often moving experiences.”
Here is Woody’s great anthem to migrant workers, Pastures of Plenty:
Listen to Woody sing “Better World,” accompanied by Will Geer (Grandpa on “The Waltons”), recorded in 1944.