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Woody Guthrie, American Radical

Will Kaufman

(University of Illinois Press; US: Apr 2011)

The author of the song children sing in school, “This Land is Your Land”, was dedicated to the overthrow of American capitalism.  Deal with it.


Will Kaufman’s forces his readers to confront, and to understand, that fact, and its larger implications, in his surprisingly brief and yet highly effective study, Woody Guthrie: American Radical. The Tea Party worries about creeping socialism? The “s” word was tepid tea as far as Woody Guthrie was concerned. Unless the “s” word is Stalinism, a concept for which we learn Guthrie maintained a long and inexplicable affection.


There are a number of fine Guthrie bios available, including those by Joe Klein and Ed Cray. This is not a biography, per se, but it manages to become more than a study of how Guthrie’s lyrics reflected his politics. Kaufman views Guthrie as a door to a forgotten American past, a populist left wing tradition that never grew the deep roots that Guthrie and others hoped for but still offered a vibrant political option in mid-century America.


Others have examined the pre-World War II political left and found a narrative of how it withered and died in the unforgiving glare of postwar anticommunist hysteria. This is not exactly the story that Kaufman tells.  It’s true that the late 40s found Guthrie deeply disillusioned by the anticommunist hysteria, the failure of a progressive presidential campaign and the right’s systematic effort to crush the labor movement. It also found him in the midst of the struggle, turning his guitar (as he himself famously phrased it) into a “a machine that kills fascists.”


Books that promise to open a window onto a larger world of politics and culture through the medium of biography often never manage to become much more than biography. This is not the case with Kaufman’s work, here, although there are moments when a bit more expansion on what was happening in Guthrie’s life would have helped us better understand his political trajectory.


For example, the fact that he struggled with Huntingdon’s disease in the latter years of his life helps explain much of his ceaseless political vitriol in the ‘50s. Kaufman discusses the effects of Huntingdon’s on Guthrie in some detail though uses it primarily as an explanation (albeit a good one) for why the FBI discontinued their surveillance of the folk bard in the midst of the Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt. Kaufman could certainly have explored the effects of the disease further, given that the degenerative malady leads to both extreme paranoia and anti-social behavior. The sad irony, of course, is that Guthrie and his compatriots had every reason to be paranoid in the ‘50s.


This rather small failing does nothing to distract from Kaufman’s achievement. It’s especially notable that the author manages to totally avoid a slide into “artist as hero” mode. Musicians, like 19th century poets, are generally written up as bearers of the transcendent whose every careless cruelty can be ignored as the collateral damage of genius. Kaufman wisely avoids any hint of hagiography. Some could argue that that is fairly easy with Guthrie, given his often brutal treatment of the women and children in his life and his occasionally cockeyed evaluation of the Soviet Union and world politics. 


Still, Kaufman’s skill in distancing himself from the very personality of his subject helps him to build some of the book’s finest chapters. In “Long Road to Peekskill”, the author traces the slow but steady growth of Guthrie’s conscious of American racial injustice.


This chapter could have easily dwelt on the sometimes kneejerk racism of Guthrie’s youth and early career in the ‘30,s or brushed that evidence aside to focus on his friendship with Lead Belly and later direct interventions against American racism.  Kaufman instead tells a story of political and moral development that paralleled the growing consciousness of the American left about race and the way in which race and class have often intertwined silently in the American experience.


In a dark irony, the political right came to understand these connections at the same time, so that the reactionary thugs who threw rocks at Peekskill believed their defense of racist power structures went hand in hand with their defense of the class structure. Peekskill became, the author writes, “the crucible in which anticommunism bled into racism as the dominant expression of American postwar reaction.” This is just one example of how Kaufman uses Guthrie’s political concerns to paint a larger canvas while never becoming mired in the politics of personality.


A very helpful conclusion examines the vexed question of Guthrie’s legacy and the folk revival years. Kaufman notes the irony of the full-throated attack on folk singing as communist subversion at the very moment that much of the folk movement turned to apolitical pop folk.  He also examines the controversial efforts by Bob Dylan to adopt elements of Guthrie’s persona, though he rightfully concludes that Zimmy’s critics couldn’t decide if he was “too much Guthrie” or “not Guthrie enough.”


As with much of the book, this concluding chapter uses the legacy of Guthrie to explore larger historical movements. Kaufman takes the opportunity to show the commodification of the folk movement in the increasing effort of everything from soda pop to car companies to cash in on the popularity of folk (an especially disturbing gem is an American Dairy Association newspaper ad that showed a stereotypical housewife strumming a guitar while the caption asked, “Wish you could write a protest song about your family’s eating habits?”).


Of course, the postwar folk movement largely became a self-satire (and much later the target of a devastating body blow of parody; cf. A Mighty Wind). Kaufman notes this and so also looks intently for Guthrie’s political legacy further afield. This allows him to conclude with some interesting comments about a musical legacy diverse enough to include Billy Bragg and London-based punk blues band, A3.


An argument can be made that the recent events in Wisconsin and Ohio represent an effort by the American political right to dismantle the remaining achievements of American labor.  Guthrie’s rabble-rousing legacy deserves some discussion at a time when the idea of “real America” is being counterpoised against the idea of a progressive America. Kaufman is an excellent guide to a tradition buried under a multi-decade propaganda campaign that buried the stories of rural and radical America.  In fact, next time you hear Guthrie’s “This Land”, remember that it included the verses:


There was a Big Wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, it said “private property”
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me


In the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I’d seen my people
As they stood their hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?


Rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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