Woody Guthrie – Hero or Villain?
In an article entitled “Woody Was No Hero,” Oklahoma historian Steve Byas questioned the reverence widely accorded legendary folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie.
Would historians honor a man who publicly backed Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939? Would scholars praise a man who wrote for an official publication of the American Nazi party? Would media promote the merits of a musician, if he had forthrightly supported Germany over the United States during World War II?
The answer to those questions, of course, is no. The National Socialist (Nazi) movement led by the murderous Hitler was so vile that Americans would not honor anyone who was an ally, a “fellow traveler,” of that movement, regardless of whether the person formally joined the American Nazi Party.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, many Americans watched as hundreds of members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol and sang Irving Berlin’s inspiring, patriotic ballad God Bless America. Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie, a native of Okemah, hated the song. Guthrie wrote a response, This Land Is Your Land, in a fit of anger. Joe Klein, a sympathetic Guthrie biographer, has said the song was “originally intended as a Marxist response to God Bless America.”
The earlier version of Guthrie’s 1940 song contained two additional verses not found in later iterations. One verse attacked the concept of private property. One of the omitted verses in This Land Is Your Land, called “the most radical of all Guthrie’s songs,” read: “Was a big high wall there tried to stop me, A sign was painted said: Private Property, But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing—, This land was made for you and me.”
Communists = Robin Hoods?
A Smithsonian Institute exhibit wrote, “Woody’s political outlook paralleled that of many Americans, who, beset with hard times, questioned the very basis of the American system. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) attracted these disaffected citizens with its egalitarian platform. For Woody, the Communists could be related to the ‘Robin Hood’ outlaws he had been singing about for a decade.”
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west and the Soviet Union Communists of Joe Stalin invaded Poland from the east, Guthrie chose to publicly defend Stalin. Guthrie wrote in an official Communist newspaper that Stalin had acted to help Polish workers and farmers. Guthrie’s column, “Woody Sez,” appeared in the People’s World, the West Coast version of the Communist Daily Worker, for more than six months. According to Klein, all that was left in the American Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Poland was “a hard core of true believers.”
Guthrie never apologized for his pro-Stalin views. In July, 1945, he wrote, “I have rolled the whole thing over in my mind and have come to believe that we need to have the CP (Communist Party) back again.” He added, “I felt when we had our Party that I had found the one organization that I could stand up and feel proud of.”
In 1948, Guthrie opposed the reelection of Democrat President Harry Truman, joining the effort of former Vice President Henry Wallace and his so-called Progressive Party. The Progressives broke with Truman over his policy of “Containment” against the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin. Contrary to the protestations of some media defenders, Guthrie even recalled carrying around a pocket-sized “Constitution of the Soviet Union, U.S.S.R.,” adding that the “best thing” he ever did was “to sign up with the Communist Party.”
While no record exists of Guthrie actually joining the Communist Party, it is safe to say his ideology was Stalinist Communist. When many wised up and left the party or dropped their support of Communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Guthrie remained defiant. According to Hard Travelin’, the Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, he even supported the North Korean and Chinese Communists during the Korean War.
Gangsters, Jesus, and Religion
One could question whether Guthrie despised some fundamental values of his own country. He believed “cops and soldiers” nailed Jesus Christ to the Cross. His version of the Gospel was that because Jesus told the rich to “give your goods to the poor,” he was laid in the grave.
Stalin was not the only gangster admired by Guthrie. He also wrote a ballad of praise to Cookson Hills criminal Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, because, “You will never see an outlaw drive a family from its home.”
His Jesus Christ was a socialist revolutionary, not the biblical Son of God. Guthrie shared the hatred of religion expressed by Karl Marx. Whereas Marx, the intellectual founder of modern Communism, considered religion the “opiate of the people,” Woody said that religion was just “hogwash intended to keep people quiet, to keep them from fighting back.”
And Guthrie wanted the people to “fight back.” He preached revolution in his column for Communist newspapers and in his songs for Communist Party rallies. He said that the best chance for this type of society succeeding was by the Communist Party. He was “troubled” by the song God Bless America. Yet some historians dismiss opposition to Guthrie, saying no evidence exists to prove he actually belonged to the Communist Party.
Why the widespread, unreserved admiration for Guthrie? Many maybe are ignorant of his radicalism, or choose to ignore it. Others are so hungry to add another “great man” to the litany of Oklahoma heroes, they might gloss over his Stalinist views. Still others perhaps revere him because of, rather than in spite of, his leftist philosophy.
Communism is a brutal totalitarian system that has caused the deaths of countless millions. As horrific as Hitler’s murders were, for sheer numbers, no political ideology in world history owns responsibility for anywhere near as many deaths as Communism. Yet Guthrie considered it the one organization he could stand up for and “feel proud of.” Those who support honoring Woody Guthrie as a hero should hang their heads in shame.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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