But the New York Times ran the most left-wing, guilt-tripping contribution to his legacy in its Weekend section last Sunday. The piece, written by Lawrence Downes, begins by noting that to attend the gala final concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., one has to buy tickets that range from $80 to $175. Guthrie was a singer who in a good year may have earned $70 in one month — when he was employed by CBS to do a radio program — and such a price for people to listen to his songs would have infuriated him.
The publicity for the concert reads: “Through his unique music, words and style, Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.” To which I would say, sometimes. He came to attention by what is most likely his most outstanding work, Dust Bowl Ballads, in which Guthrie chronicled the impact of the dust storms throughout the Southwest that drove thousands of poor farmers from Oklahoma and elsewhere to flee however they could to California and the Salinas Valley, where they could eke out a living picking crops.
No one who listens to these songs can doubt his talent, his humor, and his concern for those he knew well. “Talking’ Dust Bowl Blues” is filled with humor and irreverence, and although imitated by scores who wrote their own talking blues for years thereafter, nothing comes close to Woody’s originals.
But Mr. Downes’ concern is that there has been a “sentimental softening and warping of Woody’s reputation,” because the truth was that the “saintly folk hero” was really an “angry vigilante — a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser.” He complains that his most well-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” has been “truncated and misinterpreted” because the “pan is off the flame.”
Mr. Downes is obviously referring to the last two verses, which Guthrie himself never sang — and which now both Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen regularly include — about how he saw a sign that said “Private property, no trespassing, but on the other side it said nothing, that side was made for you and me.”
Just don’t try to trespass on any of Bruce’s million-dollar properties — unless you want the police arriving and throwing you in the hoosegow, which Woody himself knew quite a lot about.