Atom Robinson is a musician and community organizer. He lives in St. Paul.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth this Saturday, I've been revisiting his music and thinking about the world in which he wrote it and the world we live in now.
It's easy to take his music for granted. Schoolchildren know the words to "This Land is Your Land," and most folks would recognize the sing-songy chorus to "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." As Pete Seeger says, Woody's songs "are deceptively simple... Any fool can get complicated. It takes a genius to attain simplicity."
I grew up with Woody's music. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor in front of my mom's stereo, watching the record spin around and listening to "Do Re Mi." It's a song about the struggles faced by the Okies who tried to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. They were dreaming of a better life in California. If you listen to "Do Re Mi" now, you'll hear the plight of today's economic refugees, migrant workers who cross into the United States from Mexico. The place names are different, but the message is the same.
"Pretty Boy Floyd" is another song whose lyrics sound fresh and relevant. If he were alive today, Woody might have written the Internet meme, "Give a man a gun, he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank, he can rob the world." Here's what he wrote instead:
Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
Last year I got to help lead union members and their friends in song at the Minnesota State Capitol. This was during the time of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's assault on collective bargaining by public employees. Of course we sang, "This Land is Your Land." Few people knew the words to all the verses, but thousands of voices echoed through the Capitol on the choruses. It was a humbling, powerful experience. I think it's what Woody would've wanted.
His songs seem fresh and real to me, but I worry that they're becoming cultural and historical artifacts. We need new artists to step forward and raise their voices against injustice. At the centennial of his birth, Woody would want us to get organized and carry on his fight. Singing's not enough, but it's a start.