Saturday, July 14, 2012

Woody Guthrie, Liberation Theologian?

One hundred years ago today, Woody Guthrie was born.  For a more traditional meditation on Woody Guthrie's life and impact on popular culture, see my post on my creativity blog.

When I've mentioned Woody Guthrie in my classrooms, my students have often looked at me blankly.  I always say, "You think you don't know his music, but you do."  I sing a few lines of "This Land is Your Land."  I'm relieved that students continue to know that song.

Of course they don't know some of the more radical verses, like these:

"There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me."

"As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said 'No Trespassing.'
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me."

"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."

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?"

Woody Guthrie changed this song, and many of his songs, depending on the audience and the setting and what was bothering him.

What bothered him throughout his life was the plight of people at the lower ends of the social hierarchy.  He sang about migrant workers and immigrants, both legal and illegal.  He sang about displaced people of all kinds, people who had no choice but to keep moving.  His music shows a compassion and understanding that can often be absent in popular culture.

My research has not shown that his music was not specifically informed by any theology.  His lyrics do make me wonder what would have happened if his path had crossed, say, Dorothy Day's.

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