His Machine Killed Fascists

Woody Guthrie. Today marks his birthday. Time to celebrate a little and look back on such a great life.

Yup, Woody Guthrie would be 98 years old today. Simply speaking his name conjures up so many images and such an everlasting spirit. Spirit that never dies.

Woody was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14th, this very day all those years ago, in Okemah, Oklahoma. His birthplace is no museum, but there are photos of a tilted, tired ramshackle cabin in the Oklahoma woods. Named after the then-governor of New Jersey , he would many years later awe and inspire another similar spirit who just happened to be from New Jersey – his name, Bruce Springsteen.

The circle always goes unbroken.

He had a hard scrabble childhood and experienced even tougher times when a good portion of this country turned into an economically wrecked, environmentally ruined dust bowl in 1919. Woody had dropped out of school in fourth grade; a real hillbilly who never taught himself to play guitar and harmonica and never wanted anything more than to wake people up to the injustices and intolerance he saw around him. He joined the so-called “Okies” and took to the road with his first wife Mary – destination The Promised Land, California.

He started getting his message out by going on the radio with a woman co-host named “Lefty Lou” Crissman. Their radio show was a mix of corny jokes, political commentary and music, of course. In the late 1930’s, woody signed up as a member of the Communist Party and he walked it like he talked it (or more frequently sang it.) He sang about the downtrodden fellow Americans who simply wanted to live. He sang about immigrants who nobody seemed to give a damn about. He sang about rambling gamblers and crooked politicians and bankers. He sang about what it would be like if Jesus Christ was alive today. Bruce Springsteen recently said during a live performance that if Woody Guthrie were alive, “he’d have a lot to sing about.” Indeed.

His influence or place in the chain of song and humanity cannot be overestimated. His voice may seem a bit too hillbilly for some ears, but the words he sang are nothing but truth. Without Woody Pete Seeger might not have had the courage to sing, “We Shall Overcome.” Without Woody, Bob Dylan might not have had the courage to sing “Masters Of War” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Withouth Woody, Bruce Springsteen might not have had the courage to release Nebraska and sing about the same things that Woody cared about on subsequent albums. Without Woody, Tommy Morello might not have the courage to play a guitar with the words, “Arm The Homeless” on it.

Without Woody, we would be a much lesser nation and world..

On his guitar, Woody Guthrie plastered a bumper sticker that said “This Guitar Kills Fascists” and he lived that message, singin’ out with fever to slay all those who would deny the freedom and dignity of the working man, He wrote his most notorious song, “This Land Is Your Land,” subtitled “God Blessed America, an angry response to the jingoistic Irving Berlin hit, “God Bless America.”

He saw the truth behind the lies, he called bullshit when he saw it and he may have been the bravest man to ever perform. He was tremendously prolific, always watching, always listening, always trying to affect change. In his archives there exists literally thousands of lyrics without music and unfinished songs, many of which are still being re-invented by bands like Wilco and artists like Billy Bragg.

His coughed out the final year of his life in a series of psychiatric hospitals (where they cruelly sent not just the terminally insane but also the hopelessly sick) after contracting Huntington’s Disease, which eventually killed him. Bob Dylan traveled from Minnesota to New Jersey to visit Woody, Dylan unable to believe that a man who had worked so hard and moved mountains for social change could be so alone and Woody happy to have a visitor. So sad that we live in a society that abandons the sick – even geniuses like Woody Guthrie.

But we celebrate him today, every chance we get, and today is as good a chance as any. Woody Guthrie left behind a musical legacy and a catalogue of music a couple of miles long. His life was always about caring more about the other guy that you did yourself. That’s a lesson we might all be reminded of today.

Happy Birthday Woody. Wherever you might be, have a big old swig out of the jug for me. Maybe a couple of swigs.

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