Hey, Hey Woody Guthrie — We Celebrate Your Music, But We Do Not Celebrate Your Politics
Yesterday’s Arts section of the New York Times contained an interesting report about the status of Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl balladeer, in his native Oklahoma. Reporter Patricia Cohen writes that “Oklahoma has always had a troubled relationship with her native son Woody Guthrie. The communist sympathies of America’s balladeer infuriated local detractors.” Note those words, “communist sympathies”; evidently, Guthrie had some kind of innocuous sympathies, perhaps those of a naïve fellow traveler, but not those of a self-proclaimed hard-nosed Red. As one resident of Guthrie’s hometown Okema who loved Guthrie told Cohen, Guthrie had been “kind of taboo because some influential people thought Woody Guthrie had communist leanings.” The implication, as you can see, is that those attitudes were the ill-informed opinions of old school Red-baiters from the '30s.
Now, after years of denial, Oklahoma is ready to welcome Woody home. The story reports on how The George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa has bought Guthrie’s archives from his children, and are “building an exhibition and study center to honor his legacy.” It will include his notebooks and diaries, art work, letters, scrapbooks, and the like, including the lyrics of 3000 songs to which he never had the chance to write music. It cost George Kaiser some $3 million to undertake the project. We also learn that Kaiser is, as Cohen reports, “one of the richest men in Oklahoma,” a man who made his millions from the Kaiser-Francis Oil Company.
Kaiser, in other words, is just the kind of capitalist the Communists always yell about -- an exploiter of both the workers and our country’s natural resources. If you read the Wikipedia entry about him, you will find that his net worth in 2008 was some $12 billion, although his current net worth has dropped to a paltry $9 billion in today’s downward economy. He is still the richest man in Oklahoma (who also lives half time in San Francisco) but no longer one of the 20 richest in America, having slipped only to a tie for the 43rd richest person in the world!
Yes, Kaiser does good things with his wealth. He gives his money to causes like childhood education and the Oklahoma Jewish community. But he is also evidently part of the left wing of the Democratic Party, a man who argued before Oklahoma’s legislature that tax incentives for the oil and gas industry should be eliminated or reduced, and the money be used instead for health care, education, and tax cuts for regular people. (He did not, as you might expect, make that argument as he was accumulating his riches.) As you might expect, Mr. Kaiser was also one of Barack Obama’s “bundlers” in the 2008 election campaign, as well as a major investor in -- you guessed it -- Solyndra! (A bundler, as the Wikipedia entry explains, is “an individual who collects contributions to a candidate from others that are then simultaneously given to the candidate.”)
The entry also shows how carefully Mr. Kaiser gamed the market:
An article by the nonpartisan and open government organization Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison has analyzed Kaiser's business activities and his use of legal tax avoidance strategies, including how during the 1980s bust in the oil industry in Oklahoma and Texas. Kaiser bought up struggling energy companies whose losses provided him with tax deductions that effectively offset his own income and left him with little or no tax liability.
The report says Kaiser paid no taxes to the federal government for years and that when he did pay taxes, just once in a six-year period, it was just under $11,700, meaning he paid taxes on a taxable wage of $5.62 per hour. The report comes from the Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison. Allison's post indicates many experts, including the IRS, believe Kaiser's tax strategies were illegal.
To put it a bit differently, were Woody Guthrie still alive, I could imagine the expletives that would appear as he took pen to paper to blast away at how a capitalist in Oklahoma named Kaiser made a killing while regular people took the brunt. His response would have been a bit different than that of his daughter Nora, who told Cohen: “I cried for an hour after meeting George Kaiser,” since he had put “together what I’ve always dreamed of.” Absolutely Nora -- on the backs of the working class. He, according to Marx whom Woody believed in, made his money from the surplus value generated by the labor power of the Oklahoma proletariat.
Two questions remain about this article. The first is about Woody Guthrie, and deals with the question of what kind of a Communist he was, if he was indeed one at all. The answer to it is simple: Woody Guthrie was a Communist. In the 1970s, I was preparing an article for a now defunct magazine about Guthrie, and interviewed the late Gordon Freisen and Sis Cunningham in their New York City apartment, where they edited Broadside, a magazine dedicated to keeping alive the '30s topical song movement begun by the Almanac Singers. They told me that they belonged to the same NYC chapter of the CP, and with Woody, regularly went on to sell The Daily Worker on street corners each day, according to Party regulations for the chapter. Yes, they said, Woody sometimes did not like the assignment, and might dump the papers, rather than waste precious hours trying to do the impossible. An individualistic and irresponsible cadre, but nonetheless, a member.
In the '50s, when I took banjo lessons from Pete Seeger, his banjo case would be stuffed full of issues of the Communist paper. Why, I asked Pete, did he have a week’s supply of The Worker in the banjo case? He told me that while he was in the city, he would go visit Woody in the hospital where he was confined because of his Huntington’s disease, and would read him the issues aloud so he could keep up with the Party news and positions. Later, in a TV documentary made for British TV, Pete said proudly that “Woody and I were Communists.”
This is no big secret anymore, except -- evidently -- for those who still believe that unless one makes it clear he or she is a Communist to identify the person as one is Red-baiting. One would think that Guthrie would have proudly proclaimed believing in Communism, since joining the CP was the final step in affirming everything that he believed -- the need for the working class revolution that would usher in socialism, and the belief that the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin was the heartland and the leader of the coming world revolution that would usher in paradise on earth. He may not have been too good at carrying out the Jimmy Higgins nitty-gritty work required of a full-time professional revolutionary, but the Party always made exceptions on this account for its artists.
They could be used differently, putting their talent to work on behalf of using “art as a weapon,” as both Seeger and Guthrie often proclaimed it to be. There is little doubt that Guthrie considered himself a Communist. His latest biographer, Will Kaufman, has written a book that seeks, as the publisher’s précis proclaims, to examine “Guthrie's role in the development of a workers' culture in the context of radical activism spearheaded by the Communist Party of the USA, the Popular Front, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.” One reader of Kaufman’s book makes the following comment on Amazon.com: “This book achieves its stated goal of restoring Guthrie's credentials as a political radical, specifically as an unwavering follower of the political line of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA). (my emphasis) For that scholarly achievement, I might give the book five stars. However, Kaufman not only documents Guthrie's political views, he often applauds them without submitting them to critical analysis.”
The author of that comment, Jeffrey Magill, also points out the following:
[Kaufmann] is unwilling or unable to explain how an apparently smart, compassionate person such as Guthrie could rationalize the many horrors committed by the totalitarian Soviet state. Although the CPUSA was often at the forefront of the civil rights, workers' rights and anti-fascist struggles of the thirties and forties, even when and where advocating for those causes was unpopular and dangerous, it was also quick to subordinate those struggles to the political interests of the Soviet Union when Soviet policy required it (e.g. during the period of the Stalin-Hitler Pact).Couldn't Guthrie have been a progressive without being an apologist for Stalinism?
Or, as the old story goes as told by Seeger, after they heard about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which quickly put an end to the pact between Hitler and Stalin: One day at Almanac House, the name given to the community dwelling they lived in during the days before and after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Woody came in and said, referring to their recent album of anti-war songs, “Meet John Doe”: “Well, I guess we won’t be singing anti-war songs anymore.” And so they did not, quickly penning new ballads in support of FDR and military intervention on the side of the Soviet Union. The group also gave up singing those militant union songs that made them famous, as in their album “Talkin’ Union,” since the one thing the Soviets did not want was strikes that interfered with war production.
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.
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.”