Woody Guthrie, in an age of 'Occupy'
On his centennial, tributes pour in for a man who made complex social issues deceptively simple through song and championed the downtrodden.
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Returning Guthrie to Oklahoma is itself a feat that some consider overdue. Although the state once boasted the highest Socialist Party membership in the early 20th century and its role in US labor history is strong (the state motto is "Labor conquers all things"), it is now one of the most politically conservative in the nation. The state's political transformation meant Guthrie's history with the state was largely shunned. The Oklahoma Hall of Fame didn't think to include him until 2006, and no plaque bearing his name hangs on display in Tulsa.
"There had always been a faction in Oklahoma that had wanted to disown him," says Will Kaufman, author of "Woody Guthrie, American Radical." "If you are an arch defender of capitalism, you're not going to like Woody."
Guthrie derived his songs from the downtrodden lives of those he encountered on road journeys during the nation's roughest periods, particularly the Great Depression. Songs like "Union Maid," "Pastures of Plenty," and "Tom Joad" reflected a political conscience that was more culturally revolutionary than bound to any specific dogma.
"His politics really were mostly the politics of labor even more than antiwar," Mr. Kaufman says. During World War II, Guthrie railed against the enemy in songs like "All You Fascists Bound to Lose" and sang for the troops while serving in the US Army and merchant marine.
Guthrie's message resonates again
There is irony in the fact that Guthrie's music is suddenly relevant due, in part, to the protests of the "Occupy" movement and the antigovernment outcry of the tea party. Both threads circle back to Guthrie themes of corruptive, concentrated power by the powerful minority that is economically and socially oppressive to a marginalized majority.
"Political conditions have changed in such a way that, at least in some measure, Guthrie's message is finding a resonance that it did not in the recent past," says Brian Hosmer, a history professor at the University of Tulsa who is coordinating a March 10 symposium on the relationship between Guthrie and Oklahoma.
Guthrie's lesser-known or unpublished writings also reflect his many playful, romantic, cosmic, and downright goofy sides, which have come to light in musical projects spearheaded by his daughter Nora Guthrie who continues to shape her father's legacy by inviting contemporary songwriters to set his lyrics to new music.
One such collection is "New Multitudes", which features Farrar of Son Volt alongside Jim James of My Morning Jacket, among others. Farrar says it took many sessions to parse through Guthrie's journals until specific lines jumped out, almost begging to find a home.
Says Farrar: "There would be mundane, routine stuff like '9 a.m. brush teeth,' '9:30 make coffee,' and after that, something completely profound like 'music is the language of the mind that travels.' "
"I found it to be inspirational," he says. "It became evident he is [a] much more multidimensional writer who was not afraid to tackle any topic."