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Bookmark and Share | Posted: Saturday, May 8th, 2010 | Comments (4)

Why Praise Woody Guthrie?

By: Steve Byas

I have come to a conclusion: the reason many people like Woody Guthrie so much is because he was a philosophical communist, not in spite of it.
Once again, Woody Guthrie, a native of Oklahoma from Okemah, has garnered favorable accolades in the popular culture, this time promoted by the state government of Oklahoma in the form of the Oklahoma History Center.
Time Changes Everything is the tile of a play performed at the Oklahoma History Center in late March, which centers on a fictional meeting between Oklahoma’s legendary Western Swing performer Bob Wills and Guthrie.
The promotional post card sent by the Oklahoma History Center for the event explains, “Bob Wills and Woody Guthrie are not known to have met in real life, but this theatrical play envisions a discussion about music and life between the two iconic figures portrayed by Oklahoma musicians John Cooper and Brad Piccolo.”
The screen play was written by former Tulsa World entertainment writers Thomas Conner and John Wooley. On Wooley’s website he is critical of “those who still believe that folks like Bill O’Reilly speak for America.”
One supposes he thinks Woody Guthrie does “speak for America.”
Who was Woody Guthrie, and why does he hold such appeal for so many?
While Guthrie claimed to have joined the American Communist Party, there was no evidence that he actually did. What he did do was write 174 columns under the title of Woody Sez for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. Among his columns, he praised Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, even defending his unprovoked invasion of Poland in 1939!
Guthrie’s most famous song was probably This Land Is Your Land, which was inspired as a retort to the patriotic God Bless America by Irving Berlin. One of the verses reveals the anti-private property views of the leftist Guthrie.
“As I went walking, I saw a sign there, And on the sign there, it said Private Property (some versions say “no trespassing,” but the thought is the same in either version), But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing! That side was made for you and me.”
One could go on with Guthrie’s communistic philosophy, and discuss his close friendships with avowed communists, but hopefully this makes the point that Woody Guthrie was a philosophical communist, who wrote for a communist newspaper. One could even say he was the most extreme kind of communist—a Stalinist.
The question is, why praise this man, who admired a mass murderer like Stalin?
I recently tried to ask this question of the editorial staff of the liberal Oklahoma Gazette, at a public meeting. They gave the appearance, either real or contrived, of not understanding my question. I asked if instead of being a philosophical communist, who wrote for a communist newspaper, let’s say Guthrie was a philosophical Nazi, who had written for a Nazi newspaper. Would he have plays written about him, have festivals in his honor, have musical awards named for him?
The answer is clearly no.
One of the Gazette leaders tried to deflect my question by asking me if I knew of a popular author from Oklahoma attending a Communist Party meeting. Since I was asking about Woody Guthrie, I did not understand why it mattered about someone else.
I am perplexed as to how Joe Stalin, a mass murderer, can far receive less criticism from these folks than Joe McCarthy. So far as I know, Joe McCarthy never killed anybody.
I have come to a conclusion: the reason many people like Woody Guthrie so much is because he was a philosophical communist, not in spite of it. That says more about them than it does Woody Guthrie.

Reader Comments:

Name: David Zimmerman
Date: Monday, May 31st, 2010 03:51:47 PM
Comment: Place your comments here. Transplanted across the KS border in 1979 and began to study OK history, eventually teaching elderhostels for OU. I too, am amazed at Guthrie's popularity but I think it is primarily because of "This Land". The story of how he was made to alter the lyrics in order to get a job singing on a children's show--the director wouldn't let him spout his hateful communist ideals-- is a supreme irony in that the lyrics he abhorred were exactly the ones people love. Abusive to his family, such a loose cannon the American Communist Party didn't want him, Lots of forgettable strident politics songs of the Roosevelt administration. Oh, and he influenced 'Bob Dylan', Bob Zimmerman, a long lost cousin of mine.

Name: Jeff s
Date: Saturday, January 14th, 2012 10:31:28 PM
Comment: People like Woody Guthrie simply because of his songs. And they like his songs because they are heartfelt. Guthrie was a troubled individual. He suffered from a hereditary disease called Huntingtons. This disease produces a type of protein that destroys a persons brain. They slowly go insane. They slowy lose muscle control. Think alzhiemers and ALS. It's hard to understand how Oklahomans can bad mouth someone like Woody. Woody was writing about how people like the Okies were being treated. People who lost everything because of a drought and because of broken banking system. Their only sin was to be born poor sharecroppers. In an effort to survive, they loaded up their broken down truck and drove to the promise land. They werent looking for a handout. They went there looking for an honest days wages for an honest days work. Woody saw these people and was moved by their situation. No one says that you have to agree with his politics. But at the least I think people should appreciate that he was trying to help fellow Oklahomans. It was a terrible time in American history. If nothing else, woody and his songs helped fellow oklahomans forget their problems for a little while.

Name: Nate Leanin
Date: Thursday, April 12th, 2012 08:20:51 AM
Comment: Its quite the presumption on your part that because Woody Guthrie wrote for a communist newspaper that he in fact endorsed Joseph Stalin's murderous activities. Wouldn't that be the same as my assuming that the staff of the "The Oklahoma Constitution" all visit the brothels of New Orleans, as I'm sure you are admirers of David Vitter?

Name: Matthew Rothenberg
Date: Thursday, July 5th, 2012 11:42:41 AM
Comment: I raised this topic elsewhere on your site, Dear Editor. Henry Ford was a vicious antisemite who received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Adolph Hitler, who had praised him in "Mein Kampf." Yet we in the U.S. fall over ourselves in adoration of Henry Ford. How does this square with your assertion that Nazi sympathizers don't get love in this country?

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Steve Byas is editor of the Oklahoma Constitution newspaper. He may be contacted at: byassteve@yahoo.com

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