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The radical activist and folksinger Woody Guthrie is the subject of a new article by Dr Nicholas Carr of the English Department. Taking its title from a Guthrie quote—“they have their music and we have ours”—the piece examines the interplay between music and politics. “Guthrie’s songs are full of politics,” says Dr Carr. “In a sense, he wrote about little else. To him, folk songs had always been about the struggles of ordinary people, not just in the lyrics but in the style of the music itself. He saw something democratic and egalitarian in folk’s do-it-yourself ethos.”

Yet, while folk music from the Great Depression and World War II might seem distant from twenty-first century concerns, Dr Carr suggests that Guthrie has much to say to us today. “He wrote a song called ‘Deportees’ about the dehumanisation of migrants. His songs about violence towards African-Americans and other marginalised people sound familiar in the age of Black Lives Matter. He wrote a lot about the homeless, the jobless and the poor. Those things are all still with us.” What about climate change? “Well, he made Dustbowl Ballads—the first concept album about man-made environmental catastrophe!”

Since his time, musicians and other artists have become more willing to espouse political causes. But it was not so easy in Guthrie’s day. “His politics were not fashionable, they were illegal,” says Dr Carr. “Guthrie was a communist, and only his failing health saved him from the witch hunts.”

But, according to Dr Carr, the interest in Guthrie lies is not just in the music but the uses to which it has been put. His most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” a communist response to “God Bless America” that contains scathing verses about organised religion and private property, has had a strange afterlife. “It’s been used to advertise everything from Ford cars to American Airlines to Johnnie Walker whisky.” And while Lyndon Johnson apparently thought that “This Land” should have been the national anthem, Dr Carr’s article ends with a more recent president. “Woody often mentioned bankers in his songs as the archetypal bad guys. At Barack Obama’s inauguration, they sang ‘This Land’ while preparing to bail out the bankers—using public money to save private property, while ordinary people lost their jobs and their homes.”

Does this suggest a broader irony about the relationship between performers and politicians? “Well, in the American context, musicians and Hollywood stars are generally seen as supporting liberal causes. Yet it’s the conservatives who have chiefly benefited from the ‘celebritisation’ of politics in the form of people like Governor Schwarzenegger, and Presidents Reagan and Trump. That resonates with the fate of Guthrie’s efforts, which were all aimed in a radical direction but have perhaps been more successfully co-opted by the status quo.”

Dr. N.D. (Nicholas) Carr

Faculty of Humanities

Capaciteitsgroep Engelse taal en cultuur