The career and legacy of folk singer Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) is the subject of a major exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library, on view through May 22.
As the exhibit notes, Guthrie was one of the most influential songwriters and artists in American history. His active career lasted just 15 years, before he fell victim to Huntington’s disease, the inherited neurological disorder that had killed his mother and would eventually bear many of his own children. Around this time, however, Guthrie had an impact that lasted for the next three-quarters of a century. He was a defining influence in the folk music revival of the 1960s. Pete Seeger, his near-contemporary, as well as Bob Dylan, of the next generation, were largely inspired by the songs of Woody Guthrie.
The show at the Morgan is jointly presented by the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the museum that opened nine years ago in Guthrie’s birth state, and Woody Guthrie Publications, whose president is Nora Guthrie. , the singer’s daughter. The exhibit brings together a variety of materials, including audio and video clips, original handwritten lyrics, photos, and other memorabilia about Guthrie’s life.
The Socialist World Website wrote extensively about Guthrie’s career and musical legacy. If the Morgan exhibition does not significantly increase the knowledge of his work, it does present the main stages of his life and the elements of his career. The audio accompanying the exhibits is narrated by folksinger Steve Earle and includes many excerpts from interviews with Guthrie himself. As the show makes clear, while Guthrie is best known for his songs, this did not exhaust his creativity, which also included the production of cartoons, watercolors and oil paintings, as well as poetry and other writings.
Sections of the exhibit are dedicated to Guthrie’s early days in Oklahoma, the impact of the Depression of the 1930s, and the devastating Dust Bowl, which saw many millions forced from their homes in the Plains states. . About 200,000, including Guthrie himself, settled in California during the Depression years.
Guthrie was in his twenties when he started writing songs and rose to fame on a Los Angeles radio station. The exhibition faithfully reflects Wooded Sezan illustrated column that Guthrie wrote for the Communist Party’s West Coast people’s world newspaper for about 18 months, starting in May 1939. The column was also led by the Stalinist daily workerheadquartered in New York, and Guthrie was well known in CP circles by the time he moved to New York in early 1940.
In New York, Guthrie then met and married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, who became his second wife and the mother of Guthrie’s three surviving children, Joady, Nora and famous singer Arlo.
Part of the exhibit features audio from 15 of Guthrie’s most famous songs, including “This Land is Your Land”, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “Union Maid “, “Hard Travelin’” and others, in jukebox format.
The most famous of these is undoubtedly “This Land Is Your Land”, which gets a separate treatment in the exhibition. Written over 80 years ago, it has been passed down three or four generations since the early 1940s and is known to tens of millions, many of whom would not recognize the name of its author. This is just one of more than three thousand compositions by Guthrie, and it is by no means the only one he is remembered for. The song, however, embodies many of the themes associated with Guthrie: an optimism and belief in the decency of the common man; a love of country that had nothing to do with nationalism and chauvinism; and outrage at racism and all other attempts to divide working people, as well as the greed of the super-rich and the injustices perpetrated by the capitalist system.
As the show explains, the inspiration for “This Land Is Your Land” came from Guthrie’s angry reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which then saturated the radio and played a a message of conservative patriotism and complacency in the face of continuing poverty, inequality, and the United States’ impending participation in World War II. Guthrie wanted a song that celebrated the true promise of the United States – an America of equality, as evidenced by its refrain, “This land was made for you and me”.
At the same time, Guthrie’s radicalism never overtook left-wing populism. He never addressed questions of socialist theory, the need to build an independent party of the working class, or the reasons for the tragic degeneration of the Russian Revolution. If he never joined the Communist Party, it was not because he critically examined and rejected his role as a defender of the privileged Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and his role as a fanatical supporter of the administration of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was the period of the Popular Front, the doctrine that guided Stalinist policy from the mid-1930s, except for two years after Stalin signed his notorious pact with Hitler in August 1939. Guthrie continued to draw political inspiration from the Stalinists, giving his full, unconditional support during the war to the “democratic” Allies against the barbarism of the fascists.
The exhibit says little or nothing about the anti-Communist Cold War that followed the victory over Germany and Japan in 1945. It is true that Guthrie himself was less affected than blacklisted victims like Seeger, who saw his career virtually destroyed for a decade or more. . Guthrie, showing obvious and advanced symptoms of Huntington’s disease in 1952, was not a priority for witch hunters, including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
A section of the exhibit refers to the “Peekskill Race Riots”. This is a somewhat misleading reference to the violent attack on a concert by African-American singer Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York in 1949. Although there was a healthy dose of racism involved, Robeson was targeted because of his sympathy for the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Despite his own political disorientation and poor education at the hands of Stalinism, Robeson correctly refused to line up behind the war campaign against the USSR, and for this, at the age of 50, he sacrificed the rest of his his singing career.
The anti-Communist hysteria on display at Peekskill was to lead less than a year later to war in Korea, and three years later to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg accused of conspiring to give Moscow the “secret”. of the atomic bomb.
The very limited attention given in the exhibition to this part of post-war history, and its impact on interpreters like Guthrie and Seeger, is perhaps linked to a renewed thrust in class circles middle and “left”, and in the leadership of the Democratic Party itself. , for a kind of Popular Front of the 21st century. Evidenced by the very end of the exhibit, with a video screen showcasing the musical contribution of Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger during Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The implication is that, had Woody Guthrie been alive at the time he would have joined in Obama’s serenade.
While this cannot be said with certainty, it would not have contradicted Woody Guthrie’s policy. Once again, the very real threat of fascism is cited today as a reason to politically support “liberal” capitalist politicians – when in fact it is the so-called liberals and the profit system they are defending. which engender and reinforce fascism every day.
Stalinism knew how to exploit certain political weaknesses of artists like Woody Guthrie – a lack of theoretical knowledge which owed much to the history of the United States itself – to win the support of a pseudo-populist reformism, in opposition to the political independence of the working class. class and the construction of a revolutionary leadership. This is how the bureaucracy in the USSR tried to alienate and betray the leftist layers of the working class as well as artists and intellectuals.
These important political and historical considerations in no way contradict the strengths and importance of Guthrie and his work. “This Land Is Your Land” and other Guthrie songs endure for specific reasons, striking a chord among working people. The current exhibit depicts the life and times of Woody Guthrie in a vivid and informative way.