So, Woody Guthrie belonged to a different time. His songs that resonate today are largely those he wrote during the years of World War II and the second Popular Front, when Moscow’s policies dovetailed with those of the US in the need to win the war against Hitler. Like other American Communists, that allowed Guthrie to be both anti-fascist, pro-war, pro-American and pro-Soviet at the same time. But when the Cold War broke out, Guthrie remained firm with his wartime comrades, and like them, drew deeper into the sectarian world of the American Party. So one can celebrate his songs that have transcended their origin and sing “This Land is Your Land” without being any kind of a socialist or Communist. But I doubt that most Americans will enjoy singing “Ease My Revolutionary Mind.”
And so I return to the irony of Guthrie’s museum and archives being funded by Oklahoma’s leading capitalist, a man who worked the system to make billions, and obviously out of guilt likes the idea of funding the works and memorial of a man who, if he were alive, would have worked to forcefully take his wealth and redistribute it to the mass of the poor. A man who is a practitioner of the kind of crony capitalist that Guthrie would have despised, George Kaiser somehow must understand that he has little to worry about — that, as Lawrence J. Epstein argues in his book Political Folk Music in America, singing these rebel songs allow the wealthy children of today’s upper middle class to feel good about themselves, to go on making money from the system they despise, while pretending they are still revolutionaries as they get a thrill singing along with everyone else about how “The Banks Are Made of Marble.”
The 100th birthday celebration of Guthrie will culminate with a Kennedy Center concert next February. I trust that as the crowd cheers the sectarian lyrics that now have music put to them, my above point will be proved. It will end with cheers and the mass singing of “This Land Is Your Land,” so the assembled multitude will feel good about themselves, will go out thinking of themselves as 1930s Okies working the land in California labor camps, and the next day, return to their lobbying jobs on the Hill or their corporate law firms.
As for George Kaiser, I have one more thought. Mr. Kaiser fulfills the cynical observation that is attributed to Lenin in the Bolshevik years, that “the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Woody Guthrie, I’m certain, would agree.
So sing loud and clear, friends and comrades: “This Land is Your Land.”