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A century of Woody Guthrie: folk singer and trade unionist

6 November 2012

John Partington looks at the life and contribution of the musician best-known for his song ‘This Land Is Your Land’.

Woddy Guthrie

2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, the singing hobo who carried political folk song from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the urban centres of Los Angeles, New York and – ultimately – to listeners around the world.

In the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Guthrie travelled across America with farm labourers and sharecroppers who had lost their land through bank foreclosures or the environmental damage caused by over-farming the land. The dustbowlers headed to California, where farm agents promised them plentiful work and good wages – but they arrived to find the farm work hugely oversubscribed, pitiful wages, appalling conditions and racial animosity being stirred up between them and poor, often illegal Mexican workers being used as cheap labour. Guthrie penned a column, ‘Woody Sez’, for the People’s World newspaper, exposing the exploitation by California farmers and promoting organised resistance by the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America. He also started his decades of song writing, highlighting the plight of working people and promoting organised resistance in songs such as ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and ‘Tom Joad’.

In 1940, Guthrie left California and headed east, basing himself in New York for the rest of his life. He quickly joined the Almanac Singers and starting a frenetic criss- crossing of the USA, promoting the Congress of Industrial Organizations (a TUC equivalent) and promoting union organisation and recognition through the medium of song. The Almanacs were commissioned to record such union songs as ‘Boomtown Bill’ and ‘Keep That Oil A-Rollin’ for the Oil Workers International Union, and ‘Song for Bridges’ for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and they promoted women’s organisation through ‘Union Maid’.

With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Almanacs became enthusiastic anti-fascists, seeing organised labour as the greatest weapon against Nazism. In this context they penned ‘Roll the Union On’ and ‘Round and Round Hitler’s Grave’. Guthrie joined the merchant marine, making three transatlantic voyages on Liberty Ships and becoming active in the National Maritime Union.

Although still performing after the war, Guthrie’s creative abilities quickly deteriorated with the onset of Huntington’s Disease and from 1953 he was permanently hospitalised. In perhaps his last great comment on the state of labour in the USA, Guthrie wrote ‘Deportees’ in 1948, a song about a planeload of Mexican labour, deported from California as illegal, which crashed in the Los Gatos Canyon, killing all on board. Guthrie was incensed by the fact that none of the victims were named; they were reported simply as ‘the deportees’. After a long decline, Guthrie died, aged 55, in 1967 from complications resulting from Huntington’s Disease.

The continued relevance of Guthrie to today’s struggles was highlighted this July at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival, when folk singer Will Kaufman was invited to perform a 45 minute set of Guthrie songs, ‘Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin’, at which a number of TSSA members were present, myself included.


Dr John S Partington, TSSA health and safety rep, Network Rail Reading Depot


With the approach of Guthrie’s centenary, John Partington decided to gather a group of fellow enthusiasts and scholars to compose a collection of essays looking at Guthrie’s life, music and thought. The book gives special emphasis to Guthrie’s labour unionism and anti-fascism, and the power of song in promoting resistance to industrial and political oppression. The book, The Life, Music and Thought of Woody Guthrie: A Critical Appraisal, can be obtained for £49.50 from www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754669555.



 

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