Where’s Woody when we need him?
In these times of tinkle-down economics — with the money powers thinking that they’re the top dogs and that the rest of us are just a bunch of fire hydrants — we need for the hard-hitting (yet uplifting) musical stories, social commentaries and inspired lyrical populism of Woody Guthrie.
This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of this legendary grassroots troubadour, who came out of the Oklahoma dust bowl to rally America’s “just plain folks” to fight back against the elites who were knocking them down.
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As we know, the elites are back, strutting around cockier than ever with their knocking-down ways — but now comes the good news out of Tulsa, Okla., that Woody, too, is being revived, spiritually speaking. In a national collaboration between the Guthrie family and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a center is being built in Tulsa to archive, present to the world and celebrate the marvelous songs, books, letters and other materials generated from Guthrie’s deeply fertile mind.
To give the center a proper kick-start, four great universities, the Grammy Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Kaiser Foundation are teaming up to host a combination of symposiums and concerts (think of them as Woody-Paloozas) throughout this centennial year. They begin this Saturday, March 10 at the University of Tulsa, then they move on down the road to Brooklyn College and on to the University of Southern California and Penn State University.
If Woody himself were to reappear among us, rambling from town to town, he wouldn’t need to write any new material. He’d see that the Wall Street banksters who crashed our economy are getting fat bonus checks, while the victims of their greed are still getting pink slips and eviction notices, and he could just pull out this verse from his old song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”:
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered,
I’ve seen lots of funny men.
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life your travel,
Yes, as through your life your roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
Also, witnessing the downsizing of America’s jobs, decimation of the middle class and stark rise in poverty, Guthrie could reprise his classic, “I Ain’t Got No Home”:
I mined in your mines, and I gathered in your corn.
I been working, mister, since the day I was born.
Now I worry all the time like I never did before,
‘Cause I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see,
This world is such a great and a funny place to be.
Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich, an’ the workin’ man is poor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Guthrie unabashedly celebrated America’s working class, seeing in it the commitment to the common good that lifts America up. He drove The Powers That Be crazy (a pretty short ride for many of them back then, just as it is today). So they branded him a unionist, socialist, communist and all sorts of other “ists” — but he withered them with humor that got people laughing at them: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.”
Going down those “ribbons of highway” that he extolled in “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie found that the only real hope of fairness and justice was in the people themselves: “When you bum around for a year or two and look at all the folks that’s down and out, busted, disgusted (but can still be trusted), you wish that somehow or other they could … pitch in and build this country back up again.” He concluded, “There is just one way to save yourself, and that’s to get together and work and fight for everybody.”
And, indeed, that’s exactly what grassroots people are doing all across our country today. From Occupy Wall Street to the ongoing Wisconsin uprising, from battles against the Keystone XL Pipeline to the successful local and state campaigns to repeal the Supreme Court’s atrocious Citizens United edict, people are adding their own verses to Woody’s musical refrain: “I ain’t a-gonna be treated this a-way.”
Where’s Woody when we need him? He’s right there, inside each of us.