When the world of communism was crumbling under intensely hypocritical pressure tactics from capitalistic warmongers following the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, Guthrie remained a steadfast defendant of Stalin's decision.
By today’s standard, it is certainly not a flattering introduction to the man America has glorified on a postage stamp, and whose centennial is being celebrated across corporate media in full flair without any mention of his political legacies. But to understand Woody Guthrie’s contributions, it is critical to explore why he has been stripped of all the aspects he held closest to heart. If he is exalted as the father of protest music, it is crucial to understand what exactly he was protesting against.
He detailed his arguments for Stalin in his regularly published columns in the ‘Daily Worker’, the party newspaper. He reasoned why the Soviet Union could never trust the western liberal countries which had betrayed it during the Munich Agreement a year back.
Even Nora Guthrie, his daughter, who curates Woody’s archives insists today that he could not have been a communist. The Richmond Organization, Woody Guthrie’s publishers deny biographers permission to quote Guthrie’s songs which praise Stalin. And more famously, ‘This Land is Your Land’, an authentic narrative of class society analysis, is officially bereft of its most critical communistic verses when presented for consumption by American children. Like Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie has been rendered an entertainer, a national icon, a talented songwriter, and an American Legend but there is collective denial about his involvement with communism.
And yet, for Woody Guthrie, the Communist Party was his life’s foundation, his moral basis and the reason for his intellectual being, which would translate once in a while into a song dedicated to the workers of the world. “I owe the Party the only guidance and recognition and pay that I’ve ever tasted,” Guthrie wrote. He was not only a lifelong admirer of Stalin but also of the Communist Party of USA (CPUSA). “The whole world cannot trick Joseph Stalin because he is too scientific for them,” he used to say.
When the world of communism was crumbling under intensely hypocritical pressure tactics from capitalistic warmongers following the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, Guthrie remained a steadfast defendant of Stalin’s decision. He detailed his arguments for Stalin in his regularly published columns in the ‘Daily Worker’, the party newspaper. He reasoned why the Soviet Union could never trust the western liberal countries which had betrayed it during the Munich Agreement a year back. The British and the French had merely used the Soviet Union as a pawn in that betrayal. The West had collaborated with Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia, and Stalin was clearly aware that when time came, they would not hesitate handing over Soviet Union to Germany either. This is the reason why Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, which clearly irked the warmongers of the West.
Following the Hitler-Stalin pact, when Roosevelt’s militarist face was exposed, and despite the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, America was sent to war. Guthrie could see how FDR was no friend of the revolution; he was merely a champion of American capitalism. Guthrie thundered, in ‘The Ballad of October 16th’ –
The Nazi-Soviet pact, however, was short-lived because Hitler had war on his mind. But thanks to the Treaty, Stalin ensured that Soviet Union had some time to prepare for the onslaughts. A country deeply ravaged by years of civil wars that were perpetrated against the Soviets by the West for decades, could not expect active assistance from the Munich Agreement allies, to fight Hitler. Germany started its attack by invading Poland, a week after signing the non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union, and Stalin came to Poland’s rescue. And Woody Guthrie translated the War in his songs. In his morning radio programme “More War News”, he sang:
Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.
I see where Hitler is a-talking peace
Since Russia met him face to face—
He just had got his war machine a-rollin’,
Coasting along, and taking Poland.
Stalin stepped in, took a big strip of Poland and gave
the farm lands back to the farmers.
A lot of little countries to Russia run
To get away from his Hitler man—
If I’d been living in Poland then
I’d been glad Stalin stepped in—
Swap my rifle for a farm…Trade my helmet for a sweetheart.
His support for Stalin lost him his radio programme on KFVD, and his professional patron J. Frank Burke, the Roosevelt supporter whom he owed his radio career. But Guthrie was neither politically naive nor acting on emotions alone. On the contrary, he was an ardent and studious philosopher of communism. His purpose was not merely entertaining people through folk songs or becoming famous through the radio programmes funded by liberal cronies. His idea was to “make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin…fly down and roost” in his brain, as he wrote inside a book he possessed: Lenin’s ‘Theory of the Agrarian Question’. Likewise inside Marx’s ‘Capital’, he reminded himself that he would “memorise contents in a week or so…and try to write all of these things down in short words.” Through his songs and essays he did exactly that and remained uncompromisingly a comrade. He relentlessly towed the ‘party line’, stood in solidarity with Soviet Union, and understood the radical strategies of a difficult time.
After Stalin was proved right in his dealings with Hitler, and Soviet Union heroically fought the Nazis, FDR extended his friendship to the communists. Stalin was revered as “Uncle Joe” in American textbooks, and Guthrie changed his stance towards Roosevelt. And in “Dear Mrs Roosevelt”, he paid FDR a glowing tribute, following his demise:
In a society holding scientists to objective yardsticks and artists to subjective experimentations, Woody Guthrie was a social scientist and a realist artist. He was far from a romantic dreamer. And certainly not a pacifist for the sake of it. But he was a constant learner and could discern between values, including his own socially conditioned ones. In his early years, he was just another racist white man. But after receiving a letter from a young black listener, he read it out for his radio audience and acknowledged his own racism, subsequently emerging in later years as a civil rights champion of his era. Although Hal Ashby’s film ‘Bound for Glory’ portrayed Guthrie as “Saint Woody” in an attempt to dissociate his communist activism, Guthrie was no saint. He was a radical, a revolutionary who believed if imperialists raised their ugly heads, it was time to battle them in bloody struggles. To the Fascists, he sent the ultimate warning:
I sent him ‘cross that ocean to Yalta and to Tehran;
He didn’t like Churchill very much and told him man to man;
He said he didn’t like DeGaulle, nor no Chiang Kai Shek;
Shook hands with Joseph Stalin, says: “There’s a man I like!”
This world was lucky to see him born.
I’ll bomb their towns and bomb their cities
Sink their ships beneath the tides.
I’ll win this war, but till I do, babe,
I could not be satisfied.
Guthrie’s ‘machine’ indeed ‘killed Fascists’. And he appealed to human reasoning through radical folk renditions that founded the landscape of protest music worldwide. And he never faltered from why he needed to sing what he did.
And who but Guthrie can provide a better rationale?
“I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”
He never lived in the gray. He unlearned his racism as much as he learnt his communism. He chose his progressive comrades and fought for the collective’s principles, picked his radical songs and used them as effective weapons. He taught us that an artist must not be confined to the world of imagination alone. The battlefield is an unequal world and the war against injustice is absolutely on. Until that war is won, the artist must not be satisfied!