Why the politics of the late folk singer remains a matter of debate.
If Woody Guthrie had somehow survived, he would have turned 100 years old on Saturday. Google honored his anniversary month with a Google Doodle on July 4.
And from the right, the predictable protests came in. "Google celebrates Independence Day with communism."
Well, no. Guthrie was a lot more complicated than that.
Here's the truth about Woody and Communism, based on several biographies: back in the 1930s and 1940s, Communism was a rather rigid ideology and its leaders brooked nothing like dissent. (Which sounds a bit like some modern political parties, yes?)
While Woody was sympathetic to many avowed communist goals, he was too loose a cannon for any canon.
Yup: the Communists wouldn't let Woody be an official Communist, even if he'd really wanted to join. Turns out the Communist bosses were right: Woody would have made a terrible commie.
He was a staunch if unconventional American patriot who risked his life for the nation. He was totally willing to work for an honest dollar, even if that dollar had capitalistic ties. And he was a lifetime respecter of religion, while not much willing to get pinned down to any particular faith.
Not so Red.
About that patriotism part: during World War II, he served as a Merchant Marine, cleaning pots and pans. Two of his ships were blown up from under him. And he got back on the third. Few of his current critics can offer a comparable record of bravery for the nation.
And capitalism? While he sang plenty for free or little, he got paid when he could. In 1941, he took a one-month government job. He got paid $266.66 to write a song a day about the Bonneville Power Administration, which was selling new hydroelectric electricity to municipalities and industries in the Pacific Northwest.
Woody was hired to create what amounts to pro-power propaganda. The songs from that month included several that ended up classics: "Grand Coulee Dam," "Pastures of Plenty," " Roll On Columbia" and "Jackhammer Blues." (Most writers go a lifetime without penning that many memorable songs. Woody did it in a month.)
Religion and Woody were an interesting mix, according to his own writings and the biographies. He was raised Christian in a small town in Oklahoma. But he didn't belong to any particular church as an adult. In fact, his second wife was Jewish. (Their son, Arlo, famously had a bar mitzvah that included some of the major figures in folk music.)
And since Woody wrote incessantly about everything -- the song-a-day assignment wasn't as taxing for him as it would have been for any normal human -- he wrote about Judaism. In 2006, the Klezmatics recorded an entire album of his work: "Hanuka's Flame," "Hanuka Gelt", "Spin Dreydl Spin," "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flip."
Christianity figured large in some of his songs, too. "Jesus Christ" takes what you might call a "social gospel" approach to theology:
When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around
Believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross,
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
He used the Old Testament, too. In "God and Joseph," he wrote about God as redeemer:
Wella, what got Joseph out o' that hole?
God did, God did!
Who sent that rich man down that road?
God did, God did!
Who took Joseph by his hand
Who took him over to Egypt's land
Who showed him the dreams of the Pharoah man?
God did, God did!
Not so commie.
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