Book reviews / History / Non fiction

Book review: Woodie Guthrie, American Radical

This was an excellent read, a super dense 207 pages that covers Woody’s life and exactly how bloody radical he was.

It’s hard to believe there was such a large radical left movement in the United States. Then you’re reminded again of McCarthyism and it’s horrors and you understand why it’s so hard to rebuild. But, holy crap, Pete Seeger and his testimony to the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) – what a dude.

Guthrie was never called up to HUAC because by the time it started to roll around he was suffering from Huntingdon’s disease. His mother also had Huntingdon’s (before they knew what it was) and both of them were put in psychiatric hospitals (though Guthrie could leave and go visit people).

Other things that pleased me about this book was discovering the history of songs that I already knew (as covers). For example: which side are you on? Which was written by Florence Reece after police illegally raided her house, looking for her union-organising husband in 1931! I know the Dropkick Murphys’ version the best but there have been many, many covers. The whole architecture around folk music and sharing songs was amazing – folk singers’ productivity was crazy (the Guthrie archive had over 3,000 that he wrote).

Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can find an elderly Florence supporting another miner’s strike (in 1973). Also, a version of her singing the song, again when she was older.

Also, a little history of punk, in that the sticker ‘this machine kills fascists’ originates with Guthrie.

But it was a no-holds barred view on Guthrie’s life – his hypocrisy at times was pretty astounding. For example, switching from specifically anti-FDR and anti-war songs to support for the war. He also joined the merchant marines for a bit. He also seemed like he could be quite an egotistical prat.

But you have to admire his dedication and I would say his ability to change his mind. One chapter, about the Peekskill riots (which I never knew about but oh my god) outlines his shift from casual (but probably not overly intentional racism) to seeing the cause of equal rights in line with the rights for workers.

The last chapter, wrapping up his legacy and growing fame at the end of his life, brings in a recognisable group of names with the likes of Bob Dylan who somewhat carried on his tradition. There was a tension between protest songs and radicalism, and most of Guthrie’s close friends felt like they were taking the radical politics out of his legacy.

Anyway, it was an excellent read. It makes me want to read more about that 20-25 years from the great depression to the Communist witch hunts in the 1950s. Also, everyone should listen to the full version of ‘This land is your land’ because yeah. Different than the one you sing at summer camp.

5/5 for radical bad-assery.

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