Woody Guthrie | The Nation


Woody Guthrie

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Not that Woody was a rank-and-file worker. In fact, he managed to avoid manual labor more strenuous than sign-painting his entire life. He was, however, born into the working class and managed to distinguish himself not by "pulling himself up by his bootstraps" and toeing the line but rather by trusting his own talent and vision.

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Steve Earle
Steve Earle, a singer/songwriter, is the author of Doghouse Roses (Mariner), a collection of short stories.

He was no angel, either. Those closest to him sometimes found him hard to love. His family (he had two) sometimes suffered for his convictions, as he constantly sabotaged himself, especially when things were going well financially. In the long run, his political integrity was unassailable, because money and its trappings made him genuinely nervous.

By the time the 1950s blacklists got around to folk singers, Woody wasn't affected, as he was already succumbing to the disease that had institutionalized and eventually killed his mother, and he was slowly slipping away. Ramblin' Jack Elliott got there in time to hang out with him out in Coney Island. By the early 1960s Woody was hospital-bound, but he spent weekends at the home of longtime fan Bob Gleason. Bob Dylan and other up-and-coming folkies made the pilgrimage and sang for him there. When Woody finally died, in the fall of 1967, he was eulogized in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. He left behind an army of imitators and a catalogue of songs that people will be dusting off and singing for as long as they make guitars.

For me personally, Woody is my hero of heroes and the only person on earth that I will go to my grave regretting that I never met. When I invoked his name in "Christmas in Washington," I meant it. Clinton was being re-elected in a landslide and I had voted for him and I wasn't sure why and I needed something to hang on to, someone to say something. I needed, well...a hero.

Does all this mean that the world would be a different place if Woody had dodged the genetic bullet and lived? You bet your progressive ass! Just imagine what we missed! Woody publishing his second and third books! Woody on the picket lines with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers singin' "Deportee"! I could go on forever. I have imagined hundreds of similar scenarios, but then at some point it always dawns on me how selfish I am.

Let him go. He did his bit. Besides, as much as we need him right now, I wouldn't wish this post-9/11 world on Woody. He hated Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" more than any other song in the world. He believed that it was jingoistic and exclusive, so he wrote a song of his own. It goes:

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
To the New York island
From the redwood forest
To the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

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