Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) highlighted the suffering of the rural poor and dispossessed in depression and dust storm America of the 1930s.
His many songs provide the backdrop for many of the reality of ordinary American life outside of the glamour of Hollywood and big City dreams.
Guthrie openly supported the trade union movement and promoted left-wing causes for several decades and campaigned on social justice issues while his battered guitar proudly displayed the message “This Machine Kills Fascists”.
During the 50s he along with thousands of others experienced the cancelation culture of the communist witch hunts of Joe McCarthy. (McCarthy of Tipperary and Galway heritage was publicly praised by some Catholic bishops in Ireland.)
Travelling incessantly when younger, his songs chart the daily lives of a hidden class of drifting migrant labourers and poor farmers driven from their lands and jobs by exploitation and natural disasters and faced with poverty, hunger and death.
His autobiography, ‘Bound For Glory’ published in 1943, which has sold millions of copies, brought his life’s work and ideas to a wide audience.
Woody played and sang with many of the great artists such as Sonny Terry, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger.
The song collector Alan Lomax also recorded Woody for the Library of Congress.
Many regard his composition ‘This Land Is Your Land’ as the alternative anthem of North America.
There is some debate about the words of two of the original seven verses which were critical of the political situation and are rarely sung these days but may still be just as relevant.
As I went walking I saw a sign there And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”. But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the City, In the shadow of a steeple;
Near the relief office, I’ve seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
His many songs include ‘Ye Shall Be Free”, ‘John Henry’, ‘Tom Joad’, ‘Pastures of Plenty’, ‘So Long It’s been Good to Know Yah’, ‘Vigilante Man’, ‘ I Ain’t Got No Home’, while the Dust Bowl Ballads contains some of his finest work. He died after contracting Huntington’s Chorea, a degenerative disease.
His son Arlo Guthrie with Marjorie Greenblatt (Mazia), is a well known folk singer and has visited and played gigs in Ireland and in Cork many times.
The story and songs of Woody Gurthrie will be told by John Nyhan, Mick Treacy and friends at the Maldron Hotel, Shandon on Friday night 29th July from 9.30, all welcome. Not to be missed.