Remembering Woody

Volume 112, No. 7/8July, 2012

Woody Guthrie
Photo: Al Aumuller

Woody Guthrie’s spirit lives on. The singer/songwriter and labor activist who wrote thousands of songs during his lifetime would have turned 100 on July 14. Woody Guthrie sang on picket lines and union rallies, and probably did more than anyone else to forge a bond between music and labor. His son, Arlo Guthrie, is a Local 802 member and carries on his father’s tradition.

Allegro recently interviewed one of Woody’s longtime friends and colleagues, Local 802 member Pete Seeger, who turns 93 this year and who toured and sang with Woody at union rallies around the country. We asked him to talk about Woody’s contributions to labor and music.

Labor editor and activist David Elsila interviewed Pete Seeger for Allegro.

Allegro: When you think of Woody, what story comes to mind first?

Pete Seeger: I remember being in Oklahoma one day in the 1930s with Woody, singing at a meeting of oil workers. There were lots of women and children there, families of the striking workers, when all of a sudden six men with overcoats came into the hall and stood beside the side wall. We found out later that they all had clubs under their overcoats. Well, we got everyone singing, and the men in overcoats told us later that they had intended to break up our meeting, and they would have, they said, had it not been for all the women and children singing.

It showed us the power of song and the power of women, and we told Woody that he ought to write a song about women in the labor movement. So the next morning in the union office Woody sat down and typed out some verses of what would become “Union Maid,” one of the most famous of all union songs (he later said that I helped him, but I’m not sure I did). Woody used a tune from an old German folk melody that Schuman had adapted – a song about a happy farmer [Pete hums the tune]. That tune, in 1907, became a pop song of the day called “Red Wing” (“The moon shines bright on pretty Red Wing”). Woody wrote some new words (“There once was a union maid who never was afraid. . .oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union.”)

Later, while I was singing with Mill Lampell for a Transport Workers strike rally at Madison Square Garden, I was asked if I knew any new songs, and I remembered Woody’s song, but I could only recall two verses. So Mill wrote a new one that wasn’t as good of a verse as it should’ve been (“You gals who want to be free, take a tip from me. Get you a man who’s a union man and join the ladies’ auxiliary…”) Well in years since, other songwriters including Faith Petrick, have written much better lyrics about women, not so condescending.

We wrote Woody and told him that we had sung his song in Madison Square Garden. Woody did a lot of traveling. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the best family man; he divorced two wives and spent a lot of time on the road.

Allegro: If Woody were alive today, what kinds of topics might he be writing about?

Pete Seeger: My guess is that he’d write about all the stupid things that economists are saying – that if you don’t grow, you die. Well, we’re growing in many respects but much of what we do is killing us from pollution and climate change; it seems in some ways that the quicker we grow, the sooner we die. I think Woody would be latching on to a lot of the ecological issues that confront us and writing songs about them.

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) at left, with Pete Seeger, in the late 1930s or early 1940s at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee.
Photo: Courtesy Highlander Research and Education Center

Allegro: Woody was honored recently in Okemah, Oklahoma, his birthplace, but some people objected to all the accolades because they said Woody was a Communist.

Pete Seeger: Woody once applied to be a member of the Communist Party, but he was turned down. He wasn’t the kind of person to take assignments and stand on a street corner and pass out leaflets. He didn’t like to take direction. He wrote songs about workers, about farmers, about people who were struggling, and he was sympathetic to their struggles. He was one of them. But he wasn’t one to be disciplined.

He also had a sense of humor. One day two friends visited him in the mental hospital where he’d been admitted, and asked him how he was doing. “The food is fine,” he said, “and this is the freest place in America.”

“How can that be?” his friends asked, noticing the bars on the windows

“Well, here, I can jump up on a table and yell, ‘I’m a Communist’ and no one will do anything to me. But you try that someplace else and see how long it is before you’re arrested.”

Allegro: Perhaps Woody’s most famous song is “This Land Is Your Land.” Every school kid seems to know it. How did that happen?

Pete Seeger: It’s a very interesting story. Around 1940, Woody was hitchhiking from Pittsburgh to New York. It was a cold February and cars kept zooming by him, and his thumb must have been freezing. He would go into diners to get a five-cent cup of coffee to warm himself, and everywhere he went he would hear on the jukebox the new song, “God Bless America.” Well, he decided to write a counter-song that he called “God Blessed America for You and Me.”

That was the last line of the song that he wrote in 1940, but we never heard him sing it. Eight years later, he made up a new last line, and I have a piece of paper that shows him crossing out that old last line and substituting the words that everyone knows, “This land was made for you and me.” Later, he wrote more verses about people on relief and, maybe the most famous, “As I went walking, I saw a wall that tried to stop me. And on that wall it said ‘private property,’ but on the other side it didn’t say nothing; that side was made for you and me.”

In the early 1950s, a man from the Silver-Burdett publishing company was in New York and met several teachers who said that the kids who had heard “This Land” really liked it and sang it a lot. So the Silver-Burdett guy decided he would publish it in a school music book, and thousands of copies got printed and sold to schools all around the country. So now you had children everywhere singing the song, even though it had never been played on the radio or sold in a music store.

Allegro: What kind of role is there for music in the labor movement?

Pete Seeger: At times, music has been and can be important. But I have to be honest: in a lot of unions, people don’t bother going to meetings much, and union song books are not used very much, although there are groups like the Wobblies that put out books like the Little Red Song Book. Nevertheless, at certain times, music is all important and people say that if it weren’t for the songs we sung, we couldn’t have stuck together. That’s also true of the civil rights movement, where music was such an important part of the struggle for freedom.

But what will save the world, if the world is to be saved, is millions of small things – small groups of people organizing to do the important things that need to be done today. Work to save the environment. Organize to stop foreclosures. Find something to do in your community, and get busy helping. These small things were the kinds of things that Woody would write about.