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Hey, Hey Woody Guthrie — We Celebrate Your Music, But We Do Not Celebrate Your Politics

Guthrie’s previous biographer, Ed Cray, paints a similar portrait that reveals much about the nature of Guthrie’s communism. Cray argues that Guthrie may not have actually joined the Party, but nevertheless considered himself part of the Communist movement.  Cray argues Guthrie’s communism was simplistic and often oblivious to what the Party position was on local issues, especially during the early California days.  He writes that in those years, he picked “up the slogans, if not the dialectic of the Communist Party U.S.A.” Eventually, the Party offered Guthrie “a convenient political shorthand,” as he and the CP attacked the bankers and Wall Street. If you wonder why people like Tom Morello and the OWS crowd sing his songs today, there is the answer.

Guthrie came to the Party just as the Party’s Americanization campaign during the FDR years, when it was led by Earl Browder, came to the forefront. That allowed few to explore the contradiction between Guthrie’s allegiance to the CP and to Moscow at the same time.  But once he joined with the likes of Alan Lomax, who we only recently learned was himself a secret CP member, and Pete Seeger, Woody’s fortunes became entwined entirely with those of the American Party and its political positions.

The hard time of choice would come at the end of the war, and the beginning of the Cold War, with the CPUSA lost most of its members and, like good Communists the world over, followed Moscow into the new wilderness of preparing for the inevitable world war predicted by Joseph Stalin. As Cray candidly writes about his postwar work (that for which Woody was not famous and is not even known today), “the longer the Cold War wore on, the more his lyrics hardened into polemic.” Noting that Guthrie was “floundering- personally, professionally and politically,” he writes that whatever the changed times, one thing was constant: “Guthrie faithfully hewed to the Communist Party’s mandates…he was the first American patriot, then the [Communist] party loyalist.”

An early recruit to the third party campaign of Henry A. Wallace in 1948, a campaign put together by the CPUSA, Guthrie wrote about the liberal president, Harry S. Truman: “President Truman has proved to me that he don’t like my trade unions, don’t like organized labor, don’t like the Communist Party, don’t like the human race.” So, if you disagree with the American Party, it’s clear you don’t like the human race.

Today, Guthrie’s daughter Nora has continued to commission music to be written to Woody’s lyrics that he never had time to write music for, and if you look at the results on the official website, one can see how far left they are. Take “Ease my Revolutionary Mind,” music for which was written by Tom Morello (lead of the former band “Rage Against the Machine”)  and in which Guthrie expresses his need for a leftist mate, not just any woman:

If you're a republican or a democrat,

Or a white hood Ku Klux Klan,

No use to ring my doorbell

'Cause I'll never be your man.

If you're a republican or a democrat,

Or a white hood Ku Klux Klan

Note the foolish equation of being a member of one of the two major American political parties with being a racist KKK member, which is a good indication of the point Cray makes about the very left and sectarian nature of Guthrie’s politics during the early Cold War.