When a woman once asked Woody Guthrie why he did not sing for free when it was for a “good cause,” Guthrie replied, “Lady, I don’t sing for bad causes” (119). The cause was the point.
In a more unjust world, Woody Guthrie might have succumbed to this Dylanization: his legacy would have been a transmutable aesthetic category, as easy to apply or remove as a guitar capo, emptied of political content and ripped from its particular historical context (or perhaps invested with another, romanticized, one). That is how Guthrie is for many, a kind of hillbilly Jack Kerouac, wandering the nation’s highways and singing about dams and hobos and all the wonders of “this land” that was “made for you and me.” But thankfully, the collective consciousness of the radical movement has not forgotten what Guthrie stood for, and countless musicians—working in folk, country, punk, metal, hip-hop, and all kinds of amalgamations thereof—continue to build links on the great cultural chain of which Guthrie is just one part, although a significant one.
Hopefully, Will Kaufman’s book will help the rest of us remember what Guthrie meant when he insisted “this land is your land”: not praise for the state but love for the people; not an empty declaration of patriotism but a warning—indeed a threat—to all the bosses and fascists out there who would deny our collective aspirations. I suspect that this is what Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen were getting at during the inauguration concert, and if there has ever been a more audacious display of speaking truth to power, as the saying goes, this one must be a close second. On that day, they sang one of the greatest red songs by one of the greatest red songwriters this country has ever produced, literally to the faces of the ruling elite and in the very heart of empire, for millions of people to hear. Woody would have loved it.