Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy liberty than those in developing nation. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).
I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsung (ha ha) liberation theologians.
I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.
Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:
"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?
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "
Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, through his music, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.
I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.
He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.
If I was the person in charge of modern feast days, I'd canonize Woody Guthrie. His songs point the way to living a more solidly ethical life. His life does not, except by example of some things not to do. And yet, at the end, despite his wanderings, the love of his life, Marjorie, continued to care about him.
It's easier to love someone like Woody Guthrie who has a brain disease that makes him behave badly. It would be much harder if he was a jerk just because he was a jerk.
You might ask me why he deserves a feast day. I would point out his prolific output, his variety of types of songs, his embrace of dispossessed people of all sorts, his embrace of freedom. I would argue that his music can lead us to the social justice actions that God commands. I could make a case that his music leads us to God, both the songs he wrote, and the songs inspired by his life and work.
What better person to make a saint? I'm not exactly serious, because I know most people could make a fairly lengthy list of people who deserve sainthood more.
But for today, let's celebrate a musical legend. Let's celebrate the man who gave us the line "This land was made for you and me." Let's sing!
feeling the feelings…
9 months ago