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Happy Birthday, Woody Guthrie

Happy Birthday, Woody Guthrie

By Jeffrey Weiss - July 12, 2012

If Woody Guthrie had somehow survived, he would have turned 100 years old this week. 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.

But the folks who tossed sand at Google weren't all wrong. Woody was a Fellow Traveler. He joked about it: "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life."

And he was a troublemaker who likely would have been tickled that he was still able to provoke outrage close to a half-century after his death.

His best-known song, of course, is the one that Google chose to Doodle: "This Land Is Your Land." I learned it, like lots of folks, in elementary school. The safe verses. You know, the ones about the ribbon of highway and the diamond desert and the fog lifting. Wonderful, evocative language.

But it's not supposed to be a safe song. As I finally realized when I was 17. After graduating from high school, a couple of friends and I (and a puppy) lit out on a cross-country trip. We're not talking hard traveling, though. We embarked in my friend's brand new Ford van. And we mostly slept in KOA campgrounds, which all had clean showers and welcomed dogs.

I brought my guitar. I was a mediocre strummer whose love of singing was only matched by my struggle to hit notes (then as now). Perfect for Woody's stuff, so I brought a Woody Guthrie songbook on the trip.

One night, I was playing "This Land" and got to a verse I'd probably sung by rote a hundred times. But that time, as I played, I got louder and louder as I finally realized what it was saying. The folks at the next campsite finally yelled at me to pipe down.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.'
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

What made me laugh was figuring out there's only one way to see the far side of that sign.

That anarchic creativity is a legacy that has not been lost. When Woody's old friend Pete Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen's band during Obama's inaugural concert, they sang all the verses -- the safe ones and several less so.

I didn't grow up to be a folk singer or activist or a troublemaker. But I've picked my spots over the years, asking uncomfortable questions and intentionally pushing against the flow. When I do that, part of my inspiration is that night at that campground and that moment when I understood that freedom and truth must sometimes be found on the other side of the official signs.

Happy birthday, Woody.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at jweiss@realclearreligion.org.

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