Set against an anthemic folk soundtrack full of optimism and passion, Tara Brabazon surveys a moment when change for the better in America finally seems possible
This last fortnight has exposed an unusual mix of loss and denial, singing and renewal. The death of Studs Terkel signalled an end to a great campaigner for working-class history and equality.
His achievements through both writing and radio were captured through the subtitle of his last book: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. Throughout his career, he listened, he cared, he fought and inspired. Most importantly, he reminded celebrity-fuelled citizens that “we can’t make any choices unless we connect the past with the present. The thing that horrifies me is the forgetfulness.”
In commemorating the legacy of Studs Terkel, we need to acknowledge his role in creating a national and historical moment that could elect a president of colour. But we also need to capture and continue Terkel’s dignified rage and buoyant optimism.
He was generous of spirit, writing the introduction for a biography of another American maverick: Ed Cray’s masterful Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. Terkel commemorated the people who populated those times of depression and war. He realised that “they may have lacked for bread, but he [Guthrie] offered them something else: self-esteem, hope, and a laugh”. It is Terkel who linked the past and present – singing and writing – through Guthrie, by offering both a memory and agenda for a new type of politics.
Guthrie, the dust-bowl balladeer, was named after a president but his fame has lasted longer than transitory electoral success. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie – soon to be known only as Woody – was born 12 days after his namesake became the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Born in 1912 and dying in 1967 of complications resulting from Huntington’s disease, Guthrie’s life was punctuated by struggle, challenge and paradox.
His guitar, displaying the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists”, was carried through marriages, employment, unemployment and sickness. He wrote a range of songs far beyond the ability of an X Factor crooner, including politicised folk, Great Depression blues and music for children. His work lives and circulates via the web, thanks in no small part to the recent release of podcasts by the Smithsonian Institution’s label Smithsonian Folkways that not only highlight all their recorded performers, but include an hour-long programme on Guthrie.
Besides songs, Guthrie wrote poetry, journalism and prose. His autobiography, Bound for Glory, was published in 1943. Like an Oklahoman Irvine Welsh, Guthrie captured his dialect through the printed word.
He started his memoir with a memory: “I could see men of all colors bouncing along in the boxcar.” Yet in times of financial collapse, differences of skin colour are less important than survival. Guthrie wrote and sang of the Depression years when working-class men were in desperate need of work.
He provided a foundation for folk music to become part of popular music, carrying narratives of inequality through a verse and propelling a shared desire for justice in a chorus.
Great songwriters often write one song that survives beyond their generation but also captures the essence of their era as a form of musical journalism. John Lennon’s Imagine is one example. Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is another. Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land is a politicised song for social justice that has been appropriated by social rights movements around the world. Written in 1940, it has moved through hundreds of cover versions and contexts, becoming an anthem for an alternative America and a better future.
This song and Guthrie’s legacy blossomed through the folk revival of the 1960s. His fame was expanded by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn. But his long-term impact in the UK, from Donovan to Billy Bragg, was also profound. Guthrie committed to the singers who followed him, and offered a guide to songwriters.
“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes
you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for
nothing… I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work,” he said.
Optimism, passion and positivity punctuated Guthrie’s understandings of life and music. But master politicians are able to temper and tame these difficult and defiant rhythms of music to serve a more measured goal.
Barack Obama chose his balladeer well. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising was the track that the soon-to-be President used as the fanfare when entering the stage to speak. At one gathering in Cleveland, Ohio, Obama said that there were “a handful of people who enter into your lives through their music and tell the American people’s story. Bruce Springsteen is one of those people.”
When Springsteen took to the stage at that gathering, he chose to remember another singer in the battle of ideas, leading the crowd in Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. He explained such a choice – to bring Guthrie to 21st-century politics – with the statement, “I don’t know about you, but I want my country back, I want my dream back, I want my America back.”
Fine scholarship has questioned and probed these different Americas. Richard Fried, in his important history, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective, realised that “America has a fabled radical tradition, but its anti-radical tradition runs at least as deep, and conflict has persisted.” The Cold War heightened the clash between a desire for radical change and a shrill mistrust of reformers. Pete Seeger remembered that “in 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’”.
Fried and Seeger were right. There are two Americas. An America of hope and liberation battles acidic conservatism and insularity that occasionally lashes out in war and militarism. This paradox of America played on Guthrie’s six-string guitar, Leadbelly’s 12-string guitar and Seeger’s banjo.
The question for Springsteen and the rest of us is: which America is to be returned to the waiting world after Obama’s election? Is it the America of war and Wall Street, or is it a nation of liberty, multiculturalism and righteous dissent? For those who are bystanders at this moment of change, our hope is that more than a Springsteen-translation or cover version of Guthrie’s America is delivered. When we remember Guthrie, we build a bridge between history, dissent and renewal.
In Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, he reminded us that the “true genius of America” is the “capacity to change” along with the “enduring power of our ideals”. He found “our moment… our time to open doors of opportunity”. In this way, he was making a choice, to bring forward a Woody Guthrie America of progress through social transformation. Not only may this land again become our land, but new ideas will activate a global restoration.
Tara Brabazon is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton.