“I chose to ‘uncover’ Woody Guthrie because I felt his music was particularly relevant given today’s political climate.”
So says Johanna Rose, curator of GuthrieUNCOVERED, coming to Turner Hall Ballroom Friday, February 9. Like previous UNCOVEREDs, Friday’s show will feature a who’s-who of Milwaukee musicians reinterpreting and reimagining the works of an artist or group they deem worthy of the “Great American Songbook” (Prince, A Tribe Called Quest, and Stevie Wonder have been honored in recent installments). Unlike previous UNCOVEREDs, Friday’s show will be overtly and defiantly political—after all, there’s nothing apolitical about folk legend Woody Guthrie, and there’s nothing apolitical about the times we live in.
In advance of the show, we asked Rose to explain why she chose Guthrie as her UNCOVERED subject; she, in turn, asked some of her fellow musicians why they chose to reinterpret particular Guthrie songs.
Milwaukee Record: Why Woody Guthrie?
Johanna Rose: Woody Guthrie has long been a hero of American folk music, and many of his songs have been used as vehicles for various social movements. He wrote for the workers, the unions that tried to defend them, the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed.
He himself was amongst those fleeing the tragedies of the drought, a busted economy, and, of course, the Dust Bowl. In songs like “Dust Bowl Blues,” “Do Re Mi,” and “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” he describes the people’s struggles and the atrocities they faced at the hands of the farm labor systems. I think these stories resonate with Americans today who have been displaced from increasingly frequent natural disasters due to climate change and the foreign migrant workers who are largely displaced because of American foreign policy (I turn to Ali from Painted Caves to tell you about his take on the song “Deportee”). I also think they resonate with the people displaced by the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In his songs, there’s often a rich man taking away his home, like in “Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore,” and in his song “Jolly Banker,” where he describes a greedy banker, a not-so-uncommon character today.
He didn’t let people’s stories disappear with them. In the song “Ludlow Massacre” he describes an attack by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families. About two dozen people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed.
In response to these tragedies, he wrote songs to inspire workers to join together and fight for their rights. “Union Maid,” for example, became an anthem of various labor movements of his time and is still championed today.
He also wrote many anti-fascist war songs during World War II. Since I started the UNCOVERED process, these songs have become alarmingly more relevant with the emerging alt-right here in the U.S. and in Europe. He wrote some great anti-fascist ballads like “All You Fascists Bound To Lose,” and celebrated the heroes of the day, like with his song “Miss Pavlichenko.”
It’s my belief that it’s the artist, writer, poet, and musician’s job to critique society, give voices to the voiceless, and preserve their place in history. Woody Guthrie did a hell of a great job doing this. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to reinterpret many of these songs Friday at Turner Hall with an incredible cast of Milwaukee musicians, and hopefully live up to this responsibility!
Peter Mulvey – performing “Eisler On The Go”
Hanns Eisler was a composer persecuted and driven out of Germany by the authoritarianism of the Nazis. He fled to America, where, in a brutal irony ten years later, he was persecuted and driven out by the authoritarianism of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The lesson here is not whether someone is a Communist or a Nazi or a “Real American,” but whether they are an authoritarian. Woody Guthrie’s bone-chilling honesty (“Don’t know what I’ll do…”) is a bracing wake-up call to all of us, artists and art-lovers alike. We truly don’t know what we’ll do when authoritarianism comes to us, or to our friends, or to strangers. But we’d better think hard about it, and encourage each other, give each other courage. We are re-interpreting these songs because we damn well need Woody to be walking among us in 2018.
Ali Lubbad of Painted Caves – performing “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”
There is a sadistic urge in all of us that strangely enjoys seeing other people get hurt, and/or at a minimum, embarrassed: Native American ethnic cleansing, pro-wrestling, slavery, the Salem Witch Trials, America’s Funniest Home Videos? Let’s face it: stupidity is just plain fun!
There is also a contrary urge in us all that seeks to give those same people protection and relief from embarrassment, pain, and indignity: The Constitution and Bill of Rights, child protective services, unions, Social Security, and basically kind behavior towards others (not very “fun”). The United States today feels like we have reached a rupture in our treaty between these two urges, and sadism and aggressive ignorance seem to be winning.
My alcoholic brother likes to say “hurt people, hurt people”…as a country, most of us in the working class are hurting: financially, spiritually, medically, and like the Native Americans, Black slaves, Chinese laborers, Japanese detainees, and females before them, immigrants and refugees (the most powerless among us) are filling that role as the current objects of our popular dehumanization.
In 1948 Woody Guthrie was kind and sensitive enough to realize that a plane load of people dying and being dehumanized merely as “deportees” was an example of that sadistic urge mentioned above: the urge to be ignorant and unkind when even a small amount of effort (giving names to the victims) would be evidence of simple kindness and basic human dignity.
When my brother (referenced above) was a child, he was being beaten in the bath tub by our alcoholic step-father for the offense of having “too much water.” At about 8 or 9 years old, I remember feeling that it was so wrong and unfair that I didn’t care about the consequences of intervening and provoked my drunk step-father to attack me instead.
For me, Woody Guthrie’s songs come down to one simple question, and it is the question for our country (and us as individuals) now, before, and in the future: “Are you gonna stand up against what you know is wrong, justify why you can’t help out, or just sit on your fat ass and laugh?”
Carl Nichols – performing (solo) “Don’t Kill My Baby And My Son”
“Don’t Kill My Baby And My Son” is a song about the lynching of a Black woman, Laura Nelson and her son, L.D. Nelson, in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. The entire Nelson family was jailed when L.D. was accused of killing a sheriff. A mob kidnapped Laura and her two sons. She was raped and hanged. Her teenage son, L.D., was hanged, and the baby left for dead on the bridge. Photographs of the lynching were taken and printed as postcards.
Woody Guthrie wrote several songs about how lynchings were used to try to scare the Black community into obedience. Although more subtle today, this is a tactic still used by the police. Lynching itself has fallen out of fashion, but the vigilante-style killing and public humiliation of Black people is still used as a warning to the community.
The lyrics were written by Woody but the song itself was never recorded, so I’ve come up with my own arrangement. I’ve kept the song as a stripped-down folk ballad to emphasize the seriousness of the lyrics.
Kellen “Klassik” Abston – performing “This Land Is Your Land”
I was introduced to the complexities and relevancy of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land” initially through my work with the Rashid Johnson exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum this past summer. Just as it was revelatory and insanely relevant then, going into this new year, the social and political impact still remains.
When I first did my reinterpretation, I insisted on doing it completely improvised and stripped away everything but the chorus, leaving a bare bones blues-jazz-rap emotive adventure. It felt like a visceral response from me to the racial tensions that have escalated in recent years with issues of police brutality and immigration and building a stupid wall. I chose to end my refrain with “This land was made for you, but what about me?” because that’s what it feels like every day for me, a person of color, and any other disenfranchised group in this country that watches those in power enact changes that further separate us and make it clear that in many ways, we are not welcome. The thing, though, is that we aren’t going anywhere and as we unite our voices, and more importantly in unified fronts against oppressive forces, we can’t be ignored or confined for much longer.
Johanna Rose of Nickel&Rose – performing “Old Man Trump”
In 1950 Woody Guthrie moved his family into an apartment complex in Brooklyn called Beach Haven. His landlord was Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. Will Kaufman was doing research at the Woody Guthrie Center’s archives in Oklahoma when he came across Mr. Guthrie’s writings about Fred Trump called “Old Man Trump”:
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black folks come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
The song was never recorded, so Carl Nichols and I have arranged a version we are performing as our folk duo Nickel&Rose. The song is extremely relevant because it reflects the long history of segregation in America (something that is prevalent in Milwaukee) and the legacy of racism upheld by the Trump family. Now that Donald Trump is the President of the United States, we can see the same racist philosophy that his father used to run his properties seeping into American foreign and domestic policy.
Woody Guthrie’s music really informs the problems we face as people, as workers, and as a nation today. Segregation doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a product of racially discriminatory landlords (like Fred Trump) and bankers, as well as a long history of U.S. federal, state, and local policies put in place to oppress Black America.
I think “Old Man Trump” asks us to examine the institutional structures and racist attitudes that result in the residential segregation seen across the country today, as well as casts an even darker shadow over who our president is and the ideology he upholds.