Labor Day 2021 – Woody Guthrie, People's Musician

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Songwriting and Activism

WPA inspired image by Janae Jean
"Arts At Work" WPA inspired image by Janae Jean

Today is one of the two “three-day weekends” that outline the summer in the United States–Memorial Day and Labor Day. In many countries, Labor Day coincides with International Workers Day, May 1. But, here in the United States and Canada, it is celebrated on the first Monday in the month of September. Labor Day may be a relaxing day off to us today full of gatherings, picnics, barbecues, and fun, but it was created to honor the struggles of those who worked for worker’s rights during the labor movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Without the labor movement, we would not have an eight-hour work day, paid overtime, child labor laws, sick leave, and collective bargaining. Workers used songs and music to spread their message and tell the stories of their heroes. During the era of the New Deal in the 1930s, the arts were used to disseminate information and raise awareness through the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA). This included using visual art and music to show out of work people about services, programs, and available positions.


Guthrie and His Guitar in 1943 from LoC
Guthrie and His Guitar in 1943 from LoC

At this time, folk musician Woody Guthrie was traveling the United States, writing songs about the people he met and stories he heard and performing at labor union halls. He wrote in.a letter, “I sang at a hundred IWO [International Workers’ Order] lodges and met every color and kind of human being you can imagine.” In today’s post, we will be introduced to two of the most well-known songs by activist and folk musician Woody Guthrie. Guthrie’s music has entered into the musical lexicon with the help of Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – Jan. 27, 2014) and Alan Lomax (Jan. 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002).


Alan Lomax in about the 1940s from LoC
Alan Lomax in about the 1940s from LoC

The folk song collector, Alan Lomax one of the musicologists was employed with the Library of Congress through the WPA to collect folk songs, including many of these songs of the labor movement. Lomax wrote to his father, John Lomax, also a musicologist, “making connections between the ideas in the songs and their social implication.”

In the late 1930s, musician and song collector, Pete Seeger (son of composer and musicologist Charles Seeger and step-son of composer, musicologist, and music educator Ruth Crawford Seeger) took a job in Washington, D.C., assisting Lomax, who was a friend and colleague of his father, at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie and Lomax corresponded and shared songs and expertise with each other during this time.


Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. (As July 14 is the French Independence Day known as Bastille Day, it's a very fitting day for a revolutionary who championed the rights of ordinary people.) He was one of the most significant figures in American folk music and composed more than 1,000 songs. He used his music to advocate for American workers and to spread the cause of anti-fascism. In fact, he had the phrase “This machine kills fascists” written on his guitar. Guthrie referred to his music as "people's music;" folk is the German word for people.

Pete Seeger in 1955 from LoC
Pete Seeger in 1955 from LoC

In the late 1930s, musician and song collector, Pete Seeger (son of composer and musicologist Charles Seeger and step-son of composer, musicologist, and music educator Ruth Crawford Seeger) took a job in Washington, D.C., assisting Lomax, who was a friend and colleague of his father, at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie and Lomax corresponded and shared songs and expertise with each other during this time.

Guthrie penned his most famous song, “The Land Is Your Land” in Feb. 1940. Around this time, Alan Lomax began recording Guthrie’s songs in Washington D.C.1940, but the recordings were not released until later. This song is often misunderstood as shallow “flag-waving.” However, when taken in the context of all the verses, it becomes clear that Woody was able to see the potential good and the exploitative evil in American society. As he sang,


WPA Poster LoC
WPA Poster LoC

“In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people,

By the relief office, I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry I stood there asking,

‘Is this land made for you and me?’”


Although Guthrie first composed “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940 the song did not become well-known until years later. Singer Pete Seeger began popularizing in performances in the 1960s. Seeger said that he probably performed that song more than anyone else and made a point to share the lesser known, more politically charged verses in his performances. He even sang it with Bruce Springsteen controversial verses and all at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.





Guthrie’s second most famous song “Union Made” tells the story of a female labor advocate. It tells the story of a brave woman who is not afraid to stand up for worker’s rights. He sings her words,


“O, you can’t scare me,

I’m sticking with the union.

I’m sticking with the union

’Til the day I die.”


WPA Poster LoC
WPA Poster LoC

The “union maid” in the song is a bit of an early 20th century feminist icon. Guthrie’s third verse which encourages women to marry a union man comes across as dated now. Although women and men now have the choice to work in or out of the home, promoting jobs that pay a living wage where one has enough to support a household without struggling is a worthwhile example.


Seeger, Lomax, and Guthrie’s political activism and challenges to the status quo kept them all under the watch of the FBI and lead to professional difficulties for them. All of them were questioned before Congress in the McCarthy era. Despite this, all three of them remained committed to their work.





Towards the end of his life, Guthrie lost his abilities to sing or play guitar, but he continued to write and inspire a a new generation of folk performers, including Bob Dylan and Springsteen. He died on Oct. 3, 1967 in Brooklyn, New York. Into the 21st century, his descendants continue to advocate for and promote his life’s work–his many songs.


WPA Poster LoC
WPA Poster LoC

For Further Information


“About Alan Lomax.” The Association for Cultural Equity. Accessed September 3, 2021. http://www.culturalequity.org/alan-lomax/about-alan


“Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002).” The Library of Congress. Accessed September 5, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/n50039476/alan-lomax-1915-2002/


Allen, Erin. “Remembering Pete Seeger.” Remembering Pete Seeger | Library of Congress Blog, January 29, 2014. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2014/01/remembering-pete-seeger/


The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Accessed September 4, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/index.html


American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. “Lomax Family at the American Folklife Center.” Lomax Family Collections at the American Folklife Center | The American Folklife Center | Library of Congress, September 1, 2014. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/lomax/index.html


Bierman, Benjamin. “Solidarity Forever.” Essay. In The Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music, edited by Jonathan C. Friedman, 31–43. London: Routledge, 2013.


“Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways.” Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Accessed September 3, 2021. https://folkways.si.edu/classic-labor-songs-from-folkways/american-folk-struggle-protest/music/album/smithsonian

Cray, Ed. Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Dilawar, Arvind. “The Radicalism of Woody Guthrie: An Interview with Will Kaufman.” Jacobin. Accessed September 4, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/08/woody-guthrie-socialism-radical-kaufman


Gruenberg, Mark. “Today in LABOR HISTORY: Ode to a Labor Troubadour, Woody Guthrie.” People's World, July 14, 2020. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/today-in-labor-history-ode-to-a-labor-troubadour-woody-guthrie/

Guthrie, Woody. Woody Guthrie Classics Songbook. Edited by Nora Guthrie and Judy Bell. New York: Hal Leonard, 2003.

Hall, Stephanie. “In Celebration of American Labor.” In Celebration of American Labor | Folklife Today, September 2, 2016. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2016/09/labor-day/

Harrington, Richard. “The Ballad of Alan Lomax.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 29, 1997. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/1997/06/29/the-ballad-of-alan-lomax/f3560224-2075-40d9-b8b9-b7d8a6196469/

Heitman, Danny, Carl Smith, Steve Moyer, Andrew Reiner, and Bruce Falconer. “A Workingman's Poet.” The National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed September 3, 2021. https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/marchapril/feature/workingmans-poet

“LaborArts.” Labor Arts. Accessed September 5, 2021. http://www.laborarts.org/.

Lomax, John Avery, Alan Lomax, and George Lyman Kittredge. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Dover, 1994.

National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed September 5, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/new_deal_for_the_arts/index.html


“Pete Seeger.” peteseeger. Accessed September 4, 2021. https://peteseeger.org/

Sandburg, Carl. The American SONGBAG. Harcourt, 1927.

Seeger, Pete. American Favorite Ballads. Oak Publications, 1961.


Special to People’s World. “Today in LABOR History: Poet Carl Sandburg Is Born.” People's World, January 6, 2014. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/today-in-labor-history-poet-carl-sandburg-is-born/

Terkel, Studs. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey. New York: New Press, 2006.

“Welcome to the Official Woody Guthrie Website!” Welcome to the Official Woody Guthrie Website! Accessed September 4, 2021. https://www.woodyguthrie.org/

“Woody Guthrie.” The Library of Congress. Accessed September 4, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197519/

Image Sources


“[Alan Lomax Playing Guitar on Stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.].” Home, January 1, 1970. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsc.00433/


Aumuller, Al. “[Woody Guthrie, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Front, Playing a Guitar That Has a Sticker Attached Reading: This Machine Kills Fascists].” Home, January 1, 1970. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c30859/


Bock, Vera. “Work Pays America! Prosperity.” Library of Congress, January 1, 1970. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ds.04632/


Lassen, B. “WPA Federal Music Project Presents Songs and Piano Music Everybody Should Know Free to the Public /.” Library of Congress, January 1, 1970. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/wpapos/item/98516606/


Palumbo, Fred. “[Pete Seeger, Half-Length Portrait, Singing While Playing Banjo].” Library of Congress, January 1, 1970. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c16961/

Spitzer, Nick. “The Story of Woody GUTHRIE'S 'THIS Land Is Your Land'.” NPR. NPR, February 15, 2012. https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.


Waltrip, Mildred. “49th Annual Exhibition of American Paintings Sculpture Ride the North Shore Line /.” Library of Congress, January 1, 1970. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b49493/


 

Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and freelance writer and editor.