As Woody turns 100, we protest too little
In October the Kennedy Center will throw a centennial party for Woody Guthrie, a star-studded concert with tickets topping out at $175. It will be America’s ultimate tribute to a beloved troubadour. “Through his unique music, words and style,” the Kennedy Center says, “Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.”
Poor Woody. The life and music of America’s great hobo prophet, its Dust Bowl balladeer, boiled down to this: He brought attention to the critical issues of his day.
Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough. They are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. They become safe enough for the Postal Service. “For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat,” Arlo Guthrie said in 1998, when his father was put on a 32-cent stamp.
Will Kaufman’s book “Woody Guthrie, American Radical” tried to set the record straight last year. The sentimental softening and warping of Woody’s reputation began early, even as he was dying, in the 1960s. But under the saintly folk hero has always been an angry vigilante — a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser who liked to eviscerate his targets, sometimes with violent imagery. He was a man of many contradictions, but he was always against the rich and on the side of the oppressed.
He wrote hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people. Most have never heard them. Many were never set to music, and only a relative handful were ever recorded. The most famous, “This Land Is Your Land,” is too often truncated and misinterpreted. America has a lot of warmth for Woody, but maybe warmth means the pan is off the flame.
Woody’s musical heirs tried their best. But as a protest leader, Bob Dylan is done. Arlo is a Republican; he endorsed Ron Paul in 2008. Pete Seeger is still around, bless him. At President Barack Obama’s inauguration he sang the neglected verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” condemning private property, with Bruce Springsteen and a large choir. But Pete is very old. Bruce writes brilliant stuff, but are people paying attention? None of his darkly challenging populist songs have been able to keep Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — a Republican who likes to demonize labor unions — from being his near-obsessive fan.
It’s hard to be a troubadour with dangerous ideas if people refuse to be challenged or offended by them. Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is a hard-baked right-winger who wants to bleed the government so it has no money to help people but all it needs to wage war. Yet he says one of his favorite bands is Rage Against the Machine, whose members gave inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street movement and organized resistance to the anti-immigrant freak-out in Arizona. This boggles the mind.
Not to sound too morose: Billy Bragg, the British folk-punk-rock singer and Woody Guthrie devotee who sang his own verse of “The Internationale” at a 90th birthday party for Seeger in 2009, says that creative dissent never died, it just moved on. It’s there in hip-hop and other musical forms; it’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s people banging pots and pans in the street. And while American folk-protest singers may occupy the tiniest niche on public radio today, people power is still toppling tyrants, mostly overseas.
Some old-schoolers and young artists are rising to the occasion here at home, for the new era of greedy bankers, suffering migrants and dispossessed homeowners. The Woody Guthrie Archives has been helping musicians turn a huge trove of his unpublished, unsung words into music. The singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke released an album in 2008, called “The Works,” that is made up almost entirely of Woody’s lyrics.
Other musicians are making their own statements. Rick Good, a banjo player from Ohio, has a topical YouTube video that I like. “It’s not for sale,” he sings, referring to the White House, while grandchildren pass in front of the camera to blast the fat cats with hand-drawn placards, sort of like a Bob Dylan video from long, long ago. Good won’t be at the Kennedy Center hootenanny, but a few like-minded musicians will be there, including the guitarist Ry Cooder, who has reached an angry-Woody phase in his own long career. His most recent songs are pure politics, torn fresh from the headlines, with titles like “No Banker Left Behind,” “Guantanamo” and “The Wall Street Part of Town.”
His latest record, “Election Special,” comes out this month. It begins with “Mutt Romney Blues,” sung from the point of view of the frightened, roof-strapped dog, who stands in for all of us. “Ol’, Master Boss, cut me down, I won’t spread that story ‘round ... And the mean things that you’re trying to do, I won’t blow no whistle on you.”
Cooder admits that some of the songs are bitter. But someone has to sing them.
Lawrence Downes is a columnist for The New York Times.