Woody Guthrie, the labor organizer and agitator who redefined the entire genre of folk music through his political philosophy was an unrepentant Marxist-Leninist, an avowed supporter of Joseph Stalin and a lifelong adherent of Communism.
By today’s standard, it certainly is not a flattering introduction to the man America has glorified to a postage stamp and whose centennial is being celebrated across corporate media in full flair without any mention of his political legacies. But to understand Woody Guthrie’s contributions, it is critical to explore why he has been stripped of all the aspects he held closest to heart. If he is exalted as the father of protest music, it is crucial to know what exactly was he protesting against, and who prevailed upon eventually. Even Nora Guthrie, his daughter who curates Woody’s archives insists today that he could not have been a communist. The Richmond Organization, Woody Guthrie’s publishers deny biographers any permission to quote Guthrie’s songs which praise Stalin. And more famously, “This Land is Your Land”, an authentic narrative of class society analysis is officially bereft of its most critical communistic verses when it is presented for consumption by American children. Like Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie has been rendered an entertainer, a national icon, a talented songwriter, and an American Legend – after registering a collective denial about their involvements with Communism.
And yet, for Woody Guthrie, the Communist Party was his life’s foundation, his moral basis, the reason for his intellectual being which used to get translated once in a while into a song he would dedicate to the workers of the world. “I owe the Party the only guidance and recognition and pay that I’ve ever tasted,” Guthrie wrote. Not just the CPUSA, he was a lifelong admirer of Stalin. “The whole world cannot trick Joseph Stalin because he is too scientific for them,” he used to say.
When the world of communism was crumbling under intense hypocritical pressure tactics from the capitalistic warmongers following Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, Guthrie remained steadfast a defendant of Stalin’s decision. Guthrie detailed his arguments for Stalin in his regularly published columns in the “Daily Worker”, the party newspaper. He reasoned why he felt Soviet Union could never trust the western liberal countries that betrayed her during the Munich Agreement a year ago. The British and the French had merely used the Soviet Union as a pawn in that betrayal. The West had collaborated with Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia, and Stalin was clearly aware that when time comes, they would not stop at handing over Soviet Union to Germany either. This is the reason why Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, which clearly irked the warmongers of the West.
Following Hitler-Stalin pact, when Roosevelt’s militarist face was exposed, and despite the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, America was sent to war, Guthrie could see how FDR was no friend of the revolution; he was merely a champion of American capitalism. Guthrie thundered, in ‘The Ballad of October 16th’ –
“Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”
The Nazi-Soviet pact, however, was short-lived because as Stalin predicted, Hitler had war on his mind. But thanks to the Treaty, Stalin had availed to Soviet Union some time to prepare for the onslaughts. A country deeply ravaged by years of Civil Wars that were perpetrated against Soviet people by the West for decades, could simply expect no active assistance to fight Hitler from the Munich Agreement allies. Germany started its attacks by invading Poland, a week after signing the non-aggression treaty with Soviet Union, and Stalin came to Poland’s rescue. And Woody Guthrie translated the War in his songs. In his morning radio program “More War News”, he sang:
“I see where Hitler is a-talking peace
Since Russia met him face to face–
He just had got his war machine a-rollin’,
Coasting along, and taking Poland.
Stalin stepped in, took a big strip of Poland and gave
the farm lands back to the farmers.
A lot of little countries to Russia run
To get away from his Hitler man–
If I’d been living in Poland then
I’d been glad Stalin stepped in–
Swap my rifle for a farm…Trade my helmet for a sweetheart.”
His support for Stalin lost him his radio program on KFVD, and lost him his professional patron J. Frank Burke, the Roosevelt supporter who he owed his radio career to. But Guthrie was neither politically naive nor was he acting on emotions alone. Quite the contrary. He was an ardent and studious philosopher of communism. His purpose was not to merely entertain people through performing folk songs or become famous on the radio programs funded by liberal cronies. His idea was to “make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin…fly down and roost” in his brain, as he wrote inside a book he possessed: Lenin’s ‘Theory of the Agrarian Question’. Likewise inside Marx’s ‘Capital’, he reminded to himself that he would “memorize contents in a week or so…and try to write all of these things down in short words.” And through his songs and essays he did exactly that and remained uncompromising a comrade. He relentlessly towed the ‘party line’, stood in solidarity with Soviet Union, and understood the radical strategies of a difficult time.
After Stalin was proved right in his dealings with Hitler, and Soviet Union heroically fought the Nazis, FDR extended his friendship to the communists. Stalin was revered as “Uncle Joe” in American textbooks, and Guthrie changed his stance towards Roosevelt. And in “Dear Mrs Roosevelt”, he paid FDR a glowing tribute, following his demise:
“I sent him ‘cross that ocean to Yalta and to Tehran; He didn’t like Churchill very much and told him man to man; He said he didn’t like DeGaulle, nor no Chiang Kai Shek; Shook hands with Joseph Stalin, says: “There’s a man I like!” This world was lucky to see him born.”
In a society holding scientists to objective yardsticks and artists to subjective experimentations, Woody Guthrie was a social scientist and a realist artist. He was far from a romantic dreamer. And he was certainly not a pacifist for the sake of it. But he was a constant learner and he could discern between values, including his own socially conditioned ones. In his early years, he was just another racist white man. But after receiving a letter from a black young listener, he read it out for all his radio audience and acknowledged his own racism, subsequently emerging in later years as a civil rights champion of his era. Although Hal Ashby’s film “Bound for Glory” portrayed Guthrie as “Saint Woody” in an attempt to dissociate his communistic activisms, Guthrie was no saint. He was a radical, a revolutionary who believed if imperialists raised their ugly heads, it was time to battle them in bloody struggles. To the Fascists, he had the ultimate warning:
“I’ll bomb their towns and bomb their cities
Sink their ships beneath the tides.
I’ll win this war, but till I do, babe,
I could not be satisfied.”
Guthrie’s ‘machine’ indeed ‘killed Fascists’, for reactionary seeds, just as revolutionary ones, are sowed first in the minds. And he appealed to human reasoning through radical folk renditions that have founded the landscape of protest music worldwide. And he never faltered from why he needed to sing what he sang. And who but Guthrie himself could have provided a better rationale:
“I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”
Never in his life did he live in the gray. He unlearned his racism as much as he learnt his communism. He chose his progressive comrades and he fought for the collective principles. He picked his radical songs and he used them as effective weapons. He taught us that an artist must not be confined to the world of imaginations alone. The battlefield is the unequal world and the war against injustice is absolutely on. And until this war is won, the artist must not be satisfied!
(Saswat Pattanayak, 2012)