30 August 2011
WHAT THIS COUNTRY needs is a few good radicals – turds in the punchbowl of American complacency. Folk singer Woody Guthrie was one of the best, combining a passionate love of country with a fierce hatred of corporate greed. With a “this machine kills fascists” sticker on his guitar, Woody rode the boxcars and thumbed the highways of the West, singing songs to lift the battered spirits of those who were devastated by the Great Depression. “This Land is Your Land” is one of his songs that you’ve heard and probably sung in grammar school.
Poverty and tragedy characterized Woody’s childhood in Okemah, Oklahoma. Mysterious fires would break out from time to time in the Guthrie home. One of them destroyed the house, and another one killed his little sister. When Woody was 14, his financially ruined father sought work in Texas and his mentally ill mother was committed to an asylum. Woody worked odd jobs, picked trash and begged to support his siblings. He learned to play harmonica from a black blues musician who shined shoes around town and how to pick old traditional songs by ear. He became a teenage street musician, playing for quarters or a bite to eat.
Woody joined millions of Dust Bowl refugees and bummed his way to the land of milk and honey, California, in the depths of the Great Depression. There he found his fellow Okies starving in migrant worker camps, and agricultural corporations that were all too ready to exploit them. Woody followed the fruit pickers and packers, singing songs about social justice and collective bargaining in their camps and even in their workplaces. If they caught him, the goons hired by the owners and bosses to keep the workers in line would beat Woody with their fists and clubs.
Woody recorded hundreds of songs and sometimes held a good job playing live on the radio. But financial success never quite agreed with Woody. He always returned to his wandering ways, experiencing first hand the struggles he sang about. Late in life, he settled in New York City where he became a god to young folk singers like Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. In the 1950s, he slowly succumbed to the crippling effects of Huntington’s disease, which is all that saved him from the clutches of Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Woody died at the Brooklyn State Hospital in 1967. Among his survivors was his son, folk rocker Arlo Guthrie.
Woody’s playing and singing weren’t pretty. Detesting the syrupy-sweet music of complacency, Woody had a style that reflected his personality – rough, unrefined, gritty, primitive and in your face. If he ever sung a pretty song, he was sorry of it.
Dirty Overalls by Woody Guthrie
Well the guns of war have roared
and the bombs and shells have fallen
the war clouds they rumbled as they rolled
I was a soldier in the fight
and we fought till we won
my uniform’s my dirty overalls
This piece of land that I stand on
is my battlefield and home
my plow and my hoe is my gun
clothes don’t make no difference at all
we are workers and fighters all
my uniform’s my dirty overalls
Well I’ll give you my sweat
I’ll give you my blood
and I’ll give you your bread and your wine
before I’d be any man’s slave
I would rot down in my grave
and you can lay me down in my dirty overalls
Well we settled here to stay
and I’ll live here all my days
I’ll keep marchin in my dirty overalls