Nobody livin can ever stop us, as we go walkin that freedom highway ...
Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land
All-American troubadour, poet and protest singer Woodrow Wilson Woody Guthrie, known to many through his song This Land Is Your Land, was born July 14, 1912, and came of age musically and politically in the radicalizing Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression.
Depression-era social realities of inequality, foreclosures, poverty, war, racism, fascism, environmental destruction, hunger, unemployment and the exploitation of working folk informed and inspired his prolific creative output.
The threats against and hopes for human decency compelled the urgency in his writing. He wrote more than 3,000 songs in a very short, productive career. By the age of 40, the ravages of Huntingtons disease were diminishing his output, and he died in 1967.
Guthries continuing relevance is a testimony to his perceptive, hopeful and creative genius. But the relevance is also profoundly troubling: The problems that drove his work still haunt and torment us. We have not achieved Guthries freedom highway where the scourges of poverty, hunger, exploitation, racism, tyranny and war are defeated.
We live in an age that portends another Great Depression. Environmental problems threaten regions and the future of humanity. Inequality of wealth, income and power worsen and undermine possibilities for meaningful democracy and humanized solidarity, two forces at the core of Guthries politics. Global wars and militarism brutalize and destroy while throwing a dark cloud over our future.
And the exploitation of workers since 1980 has intensified: Pensions are taken away, unions are attacked and wages decline as worker productivity and hours of labor increase and others are downsized. Racism is evident in prison populations, growing slums and ghettos, collapsing inner-city schools, police brutality, anti-immigrant laws and concentrations of poverty.
The Census Bureau estimates that about 50 percent of people in the U.S. live in or near poverty. Meanwhile, corporations and big banks make record profits. In I Aint Got No Home, Guthrie sang about the crazy world where the bankin man is rich, and the workin folks is poor. Its crazy still.
Social iniquities pressed Guthrie to ask, Is this land made for you and me? The question remains relevant in this time of growing poverty, collapsing infrastructure, bought and sold politics, ongoing wars and occupations and the transfer of wealth and power to the already rich and privileged. Then there is the question of what to do about it.
Guthrie dedicated his work to denouncing injustice, indignity and inequality while announcing the possibilities for a better world, which may be his most important lesson. We must learn to be honestly critical while acting in ways that are justly imaginative. We must work to understand the world and use that understanding to create a better world.
In Pastures of Plenty, Guthrie sang, well work in this fight, and well fight til we win. The relevant fight is for popular democracy, justice, equality, freedom, creativity, peace and dignity.
Guthries mentor and comrade Ed Robbin wrote: Woody believed that what is important is the struggle of the working people to win back the earth, which is rightfully theirs. He believed that people should love one another, and organize into one big union. Thats the freedom highway.
Guthrie abides because he wrote honest songs about harsh social realities but would not sing songs that made people feel they were hopeless. He wrote songs that proved this world is our world, and we can collectively work in meaningful and productive ways in making it better for all. Thats why Guthrie called himself a commonist. Commonism, he said, means a world where there shall be no want among you.
For him, Trouble is caused by ... fear ... and ... greed (and) removed by one thing ... love. That is the secret, and you will never educate yourself past it.
It is a secret Guthrie worked tirelessly to reveal and realize, and we would do well to listen.
Doug Morris, a professor at Eastern New Mexico University, earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Penn State. He grew up in Pennsylvania and spends his summers in Mechanicsburg.