Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Why his land will finally serve Woody's memory well

Folk legend: Woody Guthrie

Just in time for this year's celebration of the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth, a major US corporation recently spent millions of dollars to ensure that a treasure trove of the legendary Leftist folk-singer's archives will be preserved for the benefit of future generations.

The Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation's move will see thousands of Guthrie's personal items - from handwritten lyrics to thousands of songs, to notebooks, paintings and unpublished short stories - housed in an Oklahoma museum and study centre that'll open next year.

Long-gone are the days when many conservatives in his home state and across America considered the author of one of the country's most cherished folk songs - This Land Is Your Land - a dangerous communist with revolutionary aspirations. Born and reared in rural Oklahoma, Guthrie hit his stride as a singer during the Depression, when he became part of the westward migration to California in search of work.

Songs that he penned during that time chronicled the hardships that the unemployed and impoverished endured during one of America's darkest economic hours.

In a time when millions were unemployed and homeless and the country's president openly warred with bankers, Guthrie was unabashedly Leftist.

Still, in spite of accusations levelled at him later, he never joined the Communist Party.

It was in 1940 that Guthrie penned the anthemic This Land Is Your Land. He said he did so because he felt America the Beautiful was too simplistic and didn't reflect the realities of working people.

During the Second World War, Guthrie served in the merchant marine as a galley hand. He penned and performed songs like All You Fascists Bound To Lose for shipmates to boost morale.

Such anti-fascist songs didn't impress the FBI. After receiving a tip from an informant, the FBI opened a file on him in June 1941.

It included claims that he "followed the Communist Party line [and was] very pro-Russian and advocated interracial marriage."

The FBI mounted surveillance on Guthrie for a while. But, as his health deteriorated in the late-1940s, he was no longer deemed a threat.

In 1952, he was diagnosed with Huntington's Disease, a neurodegenerative condition. From 1956, as he lost control of his muscles, he was hospitalised. He died in 1967 at the age of 55.

Rolling Stone magazine has hailed him as the most important folk singer of all time and the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Ireland's own Christy Moore have all cited him as an inspiration.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and, two years later, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys.

Even Oklahoma finally embraced Guthrie's legacy - although it took a while.

It wasn't until 2006 that the state finally added him to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame - a move influenced in no small part by the tourist dollars such museums can bring.

But not everyone has forgiven Guthrie. In 1999, when Oklahoma City's Cowboy Museum tried to stage an exhibition on Guthrie organised by the Smithsonian Institution, a wealthy donor's objection forced them to scrap the event.

But last month's announcement by the Kaiser Foundation puts the kibosh on such petty protests. And generations to come will now enjoy unprecedented glimpses into the private thoughts of one of the United States' greatest songsmiths.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz