...I fight on the working folks' side." -- Woody Guthrie
Woody wrote that line in Vanzetti's letter. He has Vanzetti saying it, but you can see why Woody chose to speak through him. You can also see how badly we need a Woody Guthrie today:
"We do not believe, sir, that torture, beatings, and killings and pains
Will lift man's eyes to a highest of view and break his bilbos and chains.
We believe that you must struggle for freedom before your freedom you'll gain,
Freedom from fear, sir, and greed, sir, and your freedom to think higher things."
Tonight, PBS will begin airing an installment of its American Masters series focused on Woody's life. I don't need much of an excuse to talk about Woody. He was a womanizer, a drunk, a genius, a hero. His childlike wonder and helplessness recall the luminary mathemetician Paul Erdos. His empathic bond with the downtrodden invisibles of his country bring to mind Che Guevera. His uncontrollable, compulsive acts of creation are uniquely his own but find common kin in Bob Dylan and a generation of followers.
Dylan wrote of him:
And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
He's been memorialized in song by Phil Ochs, Steve Earle, and on the first album Bob Dylan recorded. His mannerisms were copied so precisely by Ramblin' Jack Elliot (whose new album is available free on AOL this week), Dylan, and other acolytes that his daughter Nora says she can hear the Huntington's tremor in the way they sing and talk. Even the hipster musician mannerisms of the 1960s and 1970s, she claims, that herky-jerky way of walking and moving, trace back to wanna-bes imitating her dad in his last years.
His politics, reflected in his songs as much as in his visual art (which is equally prolific but underappreciated to the point of being unknown), mix a naive idealism with a cynic's wit. He dislikes captalists, hates fascists, and seems to see Communism as just a natural extension of the labor party movement. He refashions Jesus Christ in the image of (and to the tune of) Jesse James (a song that imagines the outlaw as a kind of Robin Hood retired to suburbia), finding common ground in their battles against the wealthy:
Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man
He robbed the Glendale train
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain
Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
Hard working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor."
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
and he recasts the cowboy love ballad Red River Valley as a bittersweet one about the Spanish Civil War, finding common ground this time between the beauty of the American West and the abstract beauty of political freedom:
You will never find peace with these fascists
You'll never find friends such as we
So remember that valley of Jarama
And the people that'll set that valley free
From this valley they say we are going
But dont hasten to bid us adieu
Even though we lost the battle at Jarama
We'll set this valley free before we're through
All this world is like this valley called Jarama
So green and so bright and so fair
No fascists can dwell in our valley
Nor breathe in our new freedom's air
He's also staunchly patriotic, seeing the war of democracy against fascism as a bigger version of the unions against the bosses, and one he'd fought many times before.
This convoy's the biggest you ever did see,
Stretches all the way out across the sea
And the ships blowed their whistles and they rang their bells,
Gonna blow those fascists all to hell.
Win some freedom, liberty, stuff like that.
I'm just one of the merchant crew,
I belong to the union called NMU
I'm a union man from head to toe,
I'm USA and CIO
Fighting out here on the waters to win some freedom on the land.
Woody saw the money-changers and landlords, the union bosses, and Hitler and Mussolini all of a kind. He saw Jesus, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the labor unions, and the United States as the forces for good. And he sang about and drew and painted and wrote about that fight with a biting wit (one of his great lines goes, "My wife cooked up a tater stew -- miiiiighty thin stew, though. You could read a magazine right through it. I always did think it, if it had been just a liiiiittle bit thinner, some of these here poll-iticians could have seen through it.")
At a time when the Democratic Party seems to pull in six directions at once, we could use another Woody Guthrie to remind us what we all stand for. Hell, we could use Woody himself.