Woody Guthrie: fighting Donald Trump from beyond the grave

Billy Bragg, who has performed Guthrie’s songs with Wilco, says the legendary singer’s anger at his landlord, Trump’s father, shows his radical spirit still inspires

Until he was humbled in Iowa on Monday night, it appeared that nothing could stop Donald Trump in his bid to become the Republican party’s nominee.

However, a folk singer who died in 1967 is also unexpectedly proving to be a thorn in the side of Trump’s candidacy. Over 60 years ago, Woody Guthrie, the totemic Dust Bowl balladeer who penned the timeless paean to equal rights This Land Is Your Land, became the tenant in New York of housing magnate Fred Trump, father of Donald. Guthrie’s unhappy two-year tenancy led him to write a series of bitter missives, which have only just come to light, accusing his landlord of having encoded in his contracts regulations evincing not just a cynical treatment of the working class but a bigotry towards black Americans. The implication is that Trump Jr’s real estate empire is built on exploitative, even racist, foundations, while his scattershot derogatory memes are a matter of genealogy.

British singer-songwriter and renowned leftwing activist Billy Bragg – who in the late 90s, with Americana band Wilco, set previously unheard Guthrie lyrics to music on the Mermaid Avenue album series – knows better than most the value of a good folk song. But are we overestimating the power of a lyrical broadside, issued well over half a century ago?

“It’s very seldom that a song can cut through, but a song can evoke a moment and come to signify a movement,” Bragg says, citing as an example protest anthem We Shall Overcome – and, of course, This Land Is Your Land. “For some in the US This Land is Your Land is an alternative national anthem. And when you’re faced with a threat to democracy and liberty like Donald Trump, to find out that the guy who wrote it was on to this shit 70 years ago, it gives you the sense that we are right to take a stand. There’s a connection here between Trump Sr and Trump Jr, and that connection is the exploitation of working people. And at the moment Trump Jr is exploiting working people’s fears. He’s a classic blowhard.”

Bragg is keen to emphasise that there was far more to Guthrie than proletarian laments; there is a Guthrie to suit everyone, whatever their perspective. Yes, he was the proverbial hick from the sticks with a “rough-arse upbringing”, but he spent the second half of his life surrounded by beat poets and jazz musicians in the bustling, multicultural metropolis that was New York – “a fabulous melting pot and arguably the first modern city”, says Bragg – where he wrote about everything from “riding on flying saucers and making love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano, to getting drunk with sailors and chasing women, one of whom claimed to be the niece of Walt Whitman”. He also points out that Guthrie’s own father had a murky involvement in the lynching of a black man.

The other irony of his life was that Guthrie only really became visible after he receded from view. “He never had a hit record, he was never really that famous in his lifetime, he never did gigs like I do or went on tour – his greatest album, Dust Bowl Ballads, failed to sell out its first pressing of 5,000 copies,” says Bragg. “He only really became known after he became incapacitated by Huntington’s disease [a progressive genetic neurological disorder]. Being in hospital allowed people like Bob Dylan, [Ramblin’] Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger and the others who followed on after him to imagine their own Woody Guthrie. And that’s the Woody Guthrie that still speaks to us.”

And he does so from beyond the grave. Is it plausible that this ghost might cause problems for Donald Trump?

“I think anybody who comes along and starts to chip away at your reputation [might do],” he replies. “Anything that reminds us that he came from money and isn’t a self-made person, he inherited his whole empire – I think that starts to put a question mark over his relationship with the ordinary working people he’s attracted. Guthrie has highlighted something that nobody else had spotted. That’s his job in our culture, and he’s done it very well.”

Bragg compares and contrasts Guthrie’s love of his country as refuge for all-comers with Trump’s narrow-minded patriotism. “You need people like Woody Guthrie who really loved their country and refused to have it dragged down into the mud by people like Donald Trump,” he asserts. He describes Guthrie as “the first punk rocker”, his famous daubing of This Machine Kills Fascists on his guitar an early sign of the sort of incendiary sloganeering later employed by insurrectionary rockers such as the Clash.

Can he imagine Trump Jr reading these new stories about Guthrie’s songs directed at his father and feeling a frisson of discomfort? “Oh, I do hope so,” he says. “I don’t think they’ll prevent him [from attaining power], but I do think it must be good for those forces ranged against Trump to know that Woody is standing shoulder to shoulder with them. That’s what music does: it gives you encouragement. When you know that one of your heroes is stood beside you, even one who’s no longer around, that gives you inspiration to keep on fighting.”

Fighting against fascism? “Well, according to my definition of the word, a fascist is someone who tries to blame all the problems of the world on a single powerless minority,” he says of the would-be demagogue and star of US reality TV series The Apprentice. “So in that sense, Trump is a fascist. I’m just hoping ‘reality’ is waiting for him round the corner in the shape of the American people. And their message to him will be: ‘You’re fired.’”


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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