And of course, Downes loves Ry Cooder, the brilliant guitarist who — since his trips to Cuba — has become even more ultra-left-wing and who has a new album coming out blasting “Mutt Romney.” Mr. Downes likes these “bitter” songs, because he claims “someone has to sing them.”
So yes, Guthrie was a Red, but what Mr. Downes and others don’t get is that Woody’s music, like all good music, transcends its origins. He may have written “This Land” because he didn’t like Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”, but it too has become –rightfully so — a patriotic anthem to all Americans precisely because it is not narrowly political. For some years, it was even sung at the Bradley Awards ceremonies, presented yearly at the same Kennedy Center where it will once again be sung.
As for Guthrie himself, contrary to those who say he was only “sympathetic” to the Communists, he was himself a card-carrying member.
The late Sis Cunningham and Gordon Freisen, who edited Broadside in the early ’60s, told me he was a member of the same Greenwich Village club as they were, and that he along with them were regularly assigned to sell The Daily Worker on street corners.
If you have any doubts, here’s what Woody himself wrote in an essay called “This Thing Called Socialism”:
The job to be done is to get this thing called socialism nailed and hammered up just as quick as we can. I believe this just as much as I believe my own name, and lots more. We’ve got to pay whatever it costs us to get socialism in here just as early as we can. This is that big job … Socialism is the only job worth wasting any time on or strength on. … The biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life was back in 1936 the day that I joined hands with the Communist Party. I’ll stick to my words, don’t you worry your head one minutes about that. (my emphasis)
Joining up with the CPUSA is what, if I may be frank, ruined his later work. There are scores of artists assigned to writing music to the lyrics in Guthrie’s archives that he never made up tunes for. You can listen to some of them in the two CDs out a few years ago with Billy Bragg and others. Does anyone really think that a song about the Communist Stetson Kennedy or the attempt of the U.S. to deport a real Soviet agent, which Guthrie objects to, is a work of art or that anyone else would ever sing them?