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Downes writes: "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."

The life of Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, will be celebrated at the Kennedy Center, but respectability was never his goal. (photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The life of Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, will be celebrated at the Kennedy Center, but respectability was never his goal. (photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)



As Woody Turns 100, We Protest Too Little

By Lawrence Downes, The New York Times

19 August 12

 

oor 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.

It's hard to be a troubadour with dangerous ideas if people refuse to be challenged or offended by them. Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, is a hard-baked right-winger who wants to bleed the government so it has no money to help people but all it needs to wage war. Yet he says one of his favorite bands is Rage Against the Machine, whose members gave inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street movement and organized resistance to the anti-immigrant freak-out in Arizona. This boggles the mind.

Not to sound too morose: Billy Bragg, the British folk-punk-rock singer and Woody Guthrie devotee who sang his own verse of "The Internationale" at a 90th birthday party for Mr. Seeger in 2009, says that creative dissent never died, it just moved on. It's there in hip-hop and other musical forms; it's on Facebook and Twitter; it's people banging pots and pans in the street. And while American folk-protest singers may occupy the tiniest niche on public radio today, people power is still toppling tyrants, mostly overseas.

Some old-schoolers and young artists are rising to the occasion here at home, for the new era of greedy bankers, suffering migrants and dispossessed homeowners. The Woody Guthrie Archives has been helping musicians turn a huge trove of his unpublished, unsung words into music. The singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke released an album in 2008, called "The Works," that is made up almost entirely of Woody's lyrics.

Other musicians are making their own statements. Rick Good, a banjo player from Ohio, has a topical YouTube video that I like. "It's not for sale," he sings, referring to the White House, while grandchildren pass in front of the camera to blast the fat cats with hand-drawn placards, sort of like a Bob Dylan video from long, long ago. Mr. Good won't be at the Kennedy Center hootenanny, but a few like-minded musicians will be there, including the guitarist Ry Cooder, who has reached an angry-Woody phase in his own long career. His most recent songs are pure politics, torn fresh from the headlines, with titles like "No Banker Left Behind," "Guantánamo" and "The Wall Street Part of Town."

His latest record, "Election Special," comes out this month. It begins with "Mutt Romney Blues," sung from the point of view of the frightened, roof-strapped dog, who stands in for all of us. "Ol', Master Boss, cut me down, I won't spread that story 'round ... And the mean things that you're trying to do, I won't blow no whistle on you."

Mr. Cooder admits that some of the songs are bitter. But someone has to sing them.

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+37 # df312 2012-08-19 09:57
I'll be looking for Ry Cooder's CD. It's a time to be bitter. Lies voter suppression, we're going to fight the same old fights all over again, but this time there is big, big money in the other corner.
 
 
+13 # NanFan 2012-08-19 13:44
Quoting df312:
I'll be looking for Ry Cooder's CD. It's a time to be bitter. Lies voter suppression, we're going to fight the same old fights all over again, but this time there is big, big money in the other corner.


Don't know if Ry will be singing at the Kennedy Center that night, but hope he sings one of his "slammers," such as "The Wall Street Part of Town" or "Mutt Romney Blues!"

Go get 'em, Ry! You earned it, and US citizens need a real voice of protest against the conspicuous consumptive US machine.

Today, Julian Assange stood on the balcony of the UK Ecuador Embassy and told America to stop the "witch hunt," to "go back to the revolutionary ideals that started the country." Signs of support read, "Free Assange; Don't Shoot the Messenger."

It's way past time to listen to and help the people who toil in the country that touts "freedom," and yet, where 1 in 100 Americans are in prisons.

Freedom? Hmmmmmmm...

N.
 
 
+22 # noitall 2012-08-19 10:16
Arlo a Republican! Jeezuz!! I guess he made too much money on Alice's Restaurant. His dad would roll...
 
 
+15 # LiberalRN 2012-08-19 11:07
Quoting noitall:
Arlo a Republican! Jeezuz!! I guess he made too much money on Alice's Restaurant. His dad would roll...

I'd like to think that it's the Libertarian qualities of Ron Paul that appeal but... yeah. Jeezuz! You have to be deliberately blind not to see where that road goes.
 
 
+7 # hd70642 2012-08-19 11:19
of cource the corporate media will do all they can to dismiss movememts like oocupy wall street and to disarm and declaw progressive heoroes .Does corporate /flunky/ reinfeild Glen Beserk ever mention that Helen Keller was an avid Communist-sympa thizing pro lower income individual ? Also the protrayal of poor folks went from folksy Will Rogers to bufoonish minstreal act Lary the cable guy!!!
 
 
+7 # KrazyFromPolitics 2012-08-19 11:28
Definitely not enough mass protest happening. But Arlo a Republican/Libe rtarian? He must be still holding some resentment from that Thanksgiving regulation he experienced so long ago....
 
 
+4 # Vern Radul 2012-08-19 11:30
Ry Cooder - How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

www.youtube.com/watch?v=6efQ_GyQW3o
 
 
0 # anarchteacher 2012-08-19 11:48
It's not Arlo Guthrie who is out of touch with present contemporary reality but the myopic fool caught in a self-imposed time-warp who wrote this screed. He fails to see what millions of black, white, and brown persons from every age group, socioeconomic and ethnocultural background have recognized. That someone who courageously speaks truth to power, who wants to stop the fascist political establishment from oppressing people by its murderous imperial wars, its police state surveillance and repression, its draconian drug war, its vampire bailouts of Wall Street predatory banks, is a true radical voice who has been by endlessly demonized and marginalized by the lying, complacent mainstream media for which this writer and other regime stenographers draw their bloody and soiled paychecks. These everyday people know Ron Paul for what he is, and why the fascist political establishment sees him and his dedicated millions of supporters as the greatest enemy to their continued domination and parasitic rule over the 99%.
 
 
+5 # KrazyFromPolitics 2012-08-19 13:28
Quoting anarchteacher:
It's not Arlo Guthrie who is out of touch with present contemporary reality but the myopic fool caught in a self-imposed time-warp who wrote this screed. He fails to see what millions of black, white, and brown persons from every age group, socioeconomic and ethnocultural background have recognized. That someone who courageously speaks truth to power, who wants to stop the fascist political establishment from oppressing people by its murderous imperial wars, its police state surveillance and repression, its draconian drug war, its vampire bailouts of Wall Street predatory banks, is a true radical voice who has been by endlessly demonized and marginalized by the lying, complacent mainstream media for which this writer and other regime stenographers draw their bloody and soiled paychecks. These everyday people know Ron Paul for what he is, and why the fascist political establishment sees him and his dedicated millions of supporters as the greatest enemy to their continued domination and parasitic rule over the 99%.

I agree with the diagnosis...not the cure.
 
 
+14 # sameasiteverwas 2012-08-19 11:55
Yes, bless Pete Seeger, may he live forever -- his voice may have been a little shaky last month on Colbert, but his eyes were fierce and loving as ever, and he can still make an audience -- and a nation -- sing. The respect -- even reverence -- with which Stephen introduced him sums up entirely his ability to move us still.

In the early 80s, Jackson Browne led the charge (notably the first massive populist concert, Peace Sunday, an anti-nuke extravaganza at the Rose Bowl in 1982 co-starring Stevie Wonder, Dan Fogelberg -- and highlighting the first mutual performance by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in over a decade -- before 85,000 folks). His songs are still tremendous, but like other musicians mentioned above, he has fallen by the wayside. I wonder if the music industry is, in the end, manipulated from On High by those who allow us these performers as a sop to the informed, a vent, while complacently pulling in money from the more insipid and "safe" commercial music. Why CAN'T the Bacon Brothers get radio play?

I cut my teeth on Woody. Happy birthday, walkin' man -- may your music live forever, along with Mr. Seeger!
 
 
+8 # hillwright 2012-08-19 15:28
... and his Fascist killing machine.
(his guitar)
 
 
+4 # anarchteacher 2012-08-19 12:05
http://www.youtube.com/embed/M_j6Z2gPX_U

Here is a nice little ditty produced by a group of us Okies out here in fly-over country.

Woody Guthrie would be proud.

But Lawrence Downes of The New York Times and his myopic media brethren are clueless to such real oppressions faced by working families today.

Unless they see columns of grim proletarian masses marching in earnest but determined lockstep, there is not real protest alive in contemporary American streets.
 
 
+9 # Mike Farrace 2012-08-19 12:10
Well, he's not a genuine original to the degree his dad was, but Arlo's been around himself. He's entitled. But I would bet a week's pay he's not voting for Romney.

Country Joe MacDonald, whose family is from Woody's neck of the woods in Oklahoma, has been touring for five or six years with a wonderful tribute to Woody, wherein he sings Woody's songs (including some of the unpublished lyrics, which he was the first to put to music at the request of Woody archivist Harold Levinthal).

The show is superb. It is entertaining, heartbreaking, funny and educational in the best possible way. Joe does the tunes and tells Woody stories, including reading some of Woody's columns from "Daily Worker" newsletter, all of which are extremely incisive with some also damn funny. I highly recommend it. I popped over to Joe's website to see where some upcoming performances are. Here's a link: http://www.countryjoe.com/gigs.htm
 
 
+4 # MidwestTom 2012-08-19 13:14
Tudy Woody would probably be jained under the NDAA.
 
 
-1 # Electricrailwaygod 2012-08-19 14:21
My first vinal album ('record') was Arlo Guthirie's Alice's Restaurant. It was a favourite of mine and I had for a while remembered the script! (Excepting Alice!)

But Arlo is a REPUBLICAN!? Wow! What a turncoat! What a 'Sellout'! What a traitor! SHAME ON HIM!

Had I not long ago lost that vinal recording, I probably would have broken it into tem billion pieces!

Unbelievable! He should know better! He is only a capitalist dupe!
 
 
+1 # sky 2012-08-19 20:17
Dennis Kucinich has been a particular favorite of my left-wing friends...at least he WAS until I showed them this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=py8cXlLyX18

They apparently don't know what to think about Kucinich now. Shows how unaware the left is about Ron Paul. If you only knew you would support Arlo all the way.
 
 
+7 # Buddha 2012-08-19 15:14
Don't forget Rage Against the Machine, who really are today's protest musicians.
 
 
+4 # Vardoz 2012-08-19 18:23
Where have all the people gone?
 
 
+2 # PatriotMom 2012-08-19 20:46
There are a lot of us balladeers & protest muicians out here, we're just trying to be heard in a corporate owned media. Please listen here & help us independents spread the word. My song abt corporate greed, dedicated to the 99% "It's All About Money" :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oiu87PvuhVY&feature=youtu.be
 
 
0 # Human Right 2012-08-19 23:00
The citizenry of the USA has been tranquilized with propaganda but continue to eat well and drive cars believing they are top banana and compared to most other countries they are top banana. However with laws like the "National Security Authorization Act" that most of these people have no knowledge things will slowly change for them In the future they will wish they had been more diligent and aware of their fate.
 

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