Woody Guthrie – a Great American Poet

by David Rosenberg

Who speaks for America? Poets or politicians? Or both? After a year of gigantic hurricanes, global warming warnings, terrorism, species extinctions, mass shootings and threats of atomic annihilation, to whom do we turn for solace and hope?

One of the great American poets is Woody Guthrie, subject of a raved-about tribute, “Woody Sez,” now at the Westport Country Playhouse. Inheriting the mantle of Walt Whitman, who was dubbed “the bard of democracy,” Guthrie remained ever-hopeful. “Woody Sez,” a fully-staged work that combines biography, history and music, stars award-winning David M. Lutken as the legendary folk singer. According to the New York Times, the evening is “exhilarating.”

Although born a century apart, both Whitman (1819-1892) and Guthrie (1912-1967) represent the fast-fading dream of a kind, tolerant, empathetic, welcoming, honest, dignified, respectful America in which individuals come together to form a more perfect union. They were also controversial: Whitman for his so-called immorality; Guthrie for his ideology.

Regard Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” which opens with, “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” From there, it’s a straight line to Guthrie, whose “This Land is Your Land” demands, “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway; / Nobody living can ever make me turn back / This land was made for you and me.”

Further cementing the synergy, one of Woody’s songs is titled “Walt Whitman’s Niece” (“My girl had told us that she was a niece / of Walt Whitman, but not which niece / And it takes a night and a girl / and a book of this kind / A long long time to find its way back.”

Born in an oil-boom Oklahoma town that soon went off the rails in the Great Depression, Woody was an “Okie” in many ways. Heading west to escape the infamous Dust Bowl, he soon got a job singing on the radio. Songs like “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Dust Storm Disaster” became part of his first album, “Dust Bowl Ballads.”

From the beginning, Woody’s leftist bent of championing the underdog ran afoul of censors and eventually got him blacklisted. By that time, on his own and with the hugely successful Weavers, Woody had become America’s bard, a precursor of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Author John Steinbeck said of Woody’s activism, “There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

Restless, never alighting in any one place for too long, Woody lived in Texas, New York, Oregon, Florida and, finally, Brooklyn where he came across none other than Fred C. Trump, the current president’s father. It was a volatile pairing between the songwriter who championed equality and his landlord, the real estate mogul who was brought up on charges of racial discrimination by the U. S. Department of Justice, years after Woody died.

On a Web site called “The Conversation,” British Professor Will Kaufman wrote, “Only a year into his Beach Haven residency, Guthrie – himself a veteran – was already lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood, which he’d taken to calling Bitch Havens. In his notebooks, he conjured up a scenario of smashing the colour line to transform the Trump complex into a diverse cornucopia, with ‘a face of every bright color laffing and joshing in these old darkly weeperish empty shadowed windows.’ He imagined himself calling out in Whitman-esque free verse to the ‘negro girl yonder that walks along against this headwind, holding onto her purse and her fur coat.’”

Woody, who served in the Merchant Marines and the Army during World War II, had a particular hatred for Adolf Hitler. In “All You Fascists,” he wrote “The people in this world / Are getting organized / You’re bound to lose / You fascists bound to lose.” A slogan pasted on his guitar read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Another for whom he had antipathy was Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi-loving airplane hero who championed the idea of America First. In “Mister Charlie Lindbergh,” Woody wrote:

“So I’m a gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,

The common workin’ people has to take the seat

In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:

They say ‘America First,’ but they mean ‘America Next!’

In Washington, Washington.”

Let Woody have the last word: “The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.”


“Woody Sez” is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, through Jan. 20. Call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org

“This Land is Your Land” Words & Music by Woody Guthrie © 1956 (renewed), 1958 (renewed), 1970 and 1972 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)

“Walt Whitman’s Niece” Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg
© Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & BMG Songs (BMI)

“Mister Charlie Lindbergh” Words and Music by Woody Guthrie © Copyright 1977 (renewed), 1999 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.

“All You Fascists” Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg
© Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & BMG Songs (BMI)

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