Woody Guthrie detested fascism but he never realized that at the same time as the Nazis introduced what he called “fascist slavery,” meanwhile in Russia and Eastern Europe the very same Stalinist regimes he supported and always sang benefits for inflicted the same oppressions. In 1948, he joined up, along with Pete Seeger, in the campaign to elect Henry A. Wallace for president on the Progressive Party line, a party created secretly and run by the CPUSA. What infuriated him was that the songs written for the party were not those based on old gospel tunes, and instead were songs written by people who had no idea what regular folks found appealing. When he wrote “Sinking of the Reuben James” on the eve of the Second World War, it was to the melody of one of the Carter Family’s most famous and popular hits. When Wallace lost with not one single electoral college vote, Guthrie actually thought it was because the songs they sang did “not reach in and touch deep enough to cause the hand to push the C Row handles in that voting booth.” He was naïve enough to think, it seems, that songs really could make people into good Reds.
Guthrie — and on this point Mr. Downes is correct — believed that “the money holders” wanted to “think down the radical protestery of all shapes and forms of art,” and that hence they aid “senseless piles of money” to the “blabbery artists of social surrender who boil and skim the radical protest down to nothing.” He detested those he called “Capitalist-sponsored stars,” whom he argued “have found ways and formulas to squeeze the social good of their art way down below the Nothing (Zero) line.” He believed that if you wrote music “to sting, to paralyze, to deaden … the militant fighting forces of the labor movement,” then “your wages, commission, money fee, will rise.” You would get publicity, and “your trail will be covered by cameramen, fotografers, newsreelers, and the whole presence of a rising genius will be added to your name.”
Poor Woody Guthrie. He never expected to see the day when the newsmen, the photographers, the media as a whole would proclaim singers like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, and Ry Cooder geniuses because they are leftists, and although like all good millionaires and billionaires, they use their money as Bruce Springsteen does — to buy homes all over the world and race horses for his daughter to compete with. If Woody was alive, he at least would be honest, and would have squandered his money and given it to the CPUSA.
So go and honor Woody — he was in so many ways a bard of those who were dispossessed and down under in the years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and in his best works, he echoed their concerns and their lives. In his worst, he became a prisoner of the Communist movement he joined, who forced him to adopt political correctness on behalf of evil causes, and to write songs on their behalf better forgotten.
Remember this if you’re attending any of the concerts coming up. And if Tom Morello sings and I’m there, I’ll remain sitting, won’t applaud, and if you hear someone booing, it might just be me.