Friday, May 1, 2015
May 1, 2015: Communist Culture: Woody Guthrie and Steve Earle
[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On communist protest anthems and artists, then and now.
In one of my earliest blog posts, I nominated Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (1944)—ideally the version with all the verses, but I was willing to settle for the more commonly accepted shortened version—as a new national anthem. I have been interested to see that both of my sons have learned and performed the song (in that shortened version) in their elementary school music classes, as I vaguely remember doing in my own. Because the truth is that, even without the usually excluded verse about the “No trespassing” sign that has nothing written on the back, “This Land” offers what we would have to call a communist vision of America: as a place that is fundamentally shared by all of us, owned not as private property or competitive resource but as a communal space that “belongs to you and me.” By 1944, communism had already come to be closely associated with (if not entirely tied to) the Soviet Union, and thus to an explicit alternative to American identity, making Guthrie’s song a subtle but (to my mind) definite protest anthem.
Far, far less subtle is Steve Earle’s song “Christmas in Washington” (1997), which in its chorus implores, “Come back Woody Guthrie/Come back to us now/Tear your eyes from paradise/And rise again somehow.” Earle’s song is about the need for new protest anthems at the turn of the 21st century, as well as representing an attempt to offer precisely such a new anthem, and besides the request of Guthrie’s ghost Earle’s speaker also calls for the return of a pair of early 20th century communist activists: “So come back Emma Goldman/Rise up old Joe Hill/The barricades are going up/They cannot break our will.” Which is to say, while protest songs can of course take any number of different political and social perspectives, Earle ties both his and Guthrie’s protest anthems much more specifically to communism—not, again, in the Soviet sense, but rather in an emphasis on radical activisms (both labor and social) and their concurrent arguments for social and economic equality.
Earle’s song is even less likely than the full version of Guthrie’s to become a new national anthem (and, to be clear, much less powerful than Guthrie’s as well, especially in the much-too-specific late 1996 setting of its opening verse). But one significant benefit of playing the two songs back to back is the reminder that Guthrie wasn’t just a unifying American voice—he certainly wanted to be and (I would argue) was that, but he did so through offering a radical, protesting perspective, one that it is no stretch to call communist. Which, like all of the week’s texts and artists in their own interconnected ways, would remind us that communism has not been just some external threat to the United States—that it has also, and far more importantly, been a multi-century thread and presence in our own society and identity, an American community and perspective deserving of the extended attention and analysis that these cultural works help provide.
April Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?