As Woody Turns 100, We Protest Too Little

In October the Kennedy Center will throw a centennial party for Woody Guthrie, a star-studded concert with tickets topping out at $175. It will be America’s ultimate tribute to a beloved troubadour. “Through his unique music, words and style,” the Kennedy Center says, “Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.”

Poor Woody. The life and music of America’s great hobo prophet, its Dust Bowl balladeer, boiled down to this: He brought attention to the critical issues of his day.

Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough. They are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. They become safe enough for the Postal Service. “For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat,” Arlo Guthrie said in 1998, when his father was put on a 32-cent stamp.

Will Kaufman’s book “Woody Guthrie, American Radical” tried to set the record straight last year. The sentimental softening and warping of Woody’s reputation began early, even as he was dying, in the 1960s. But under the saintly folk hero has always been an angry vigilante — a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser who liked to eviscerate his targets, sometimes with violent imagery. He was a man of many contradictions, but he was always against the rich and on the side of the oppressed.

He wrote hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people. Most have never heard them. Many were never set to music, and only a relative handful were ever recorded. The most famous, “This Land Is Your Land,” is too often truncated and misinterpreted. America has a lot of warmth for Woody, but maybe warmth means the pan is off the flame.

Woody’s musical heirs tried their best. But as a protest leader, Bob Dylan is done. Arlo is a Republican; he endorsed Ron Paul in 2008. Pete Seeger is still around, bless him. At President Obama’s inauguration he sang the neglected verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” condemning private property, with Bruce Springsteen and a large choir. But Pete is very old. Bruce writes brilliant stuff, but are people paying attention? None of his darkly challenging populist songs have been able to keep Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — a Republican who likes to demonize labor unions — from being his near-obsessive fan.


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