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.’”

Contributor

Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jay Farrar continues Woody Guthrie album series

News: The singer-songwriter will record the third Mermaid Avenue collection, which features unpublished lyrics and unreleased songs by the legendary folk musician

Sean Michaels

18, Sep, 2009 @10:39 AM

Article image
Billy Bragg: Barking's Woody Guthrie on 30 years of songs and activism

From agitpop to love songs, Bragg has brought his audience through life with him, creating a soundtrack to thousands of lives

John Harris

26, Mar, 2013 @5:00 PM

Article image
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy: 'Trump's success is a sign of how broken things have been'
The musician reveals why he might be forced to add Woody Guthrie’s diatribe against Trump Senior to his shows and the pleasure of making music with his son

Martin Farrer

19, Feb, 2016 @9:43 PM

Article image
Woody Guthrie at 100: the return of a pariah | Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg: Woody Guthrie was shunned by his home state. Now Oklahoma can finally embrace the singer-songwriter's work

Billy Bragg in Tulsa, Oklahoma

12, Jul, 2012 @8:30 PM

Article image
PGA slices Donald Trump golf club from tournament schedule
Trump Organization announces agreement with Professional Golfers’ Association ‘due to controversy surrounding statements’ on immigration

Alan Yuhas in New York

07, Jul, 2015 @5:39 PM

Article image
I’m a Latino millennial, and Donald Trump has inspired me beyond words | Angelo Gomez
I voted for Trump for his sound policies, and because he’s not part of the establishment. One day, I want to emulate him and become president

Angelo Gomez

11, Nov, 2016 @11:32 AM

Article image
Muslim woman ejected from Donald Trump rally after silent protest
Rose Hamid, who wore a shirt that read ‘Salam, I come in peace’, was aggressively heckled as she was escorted from the campaign event in South Carolina

Amanda Holpuch in New York

09, Jan, 2016 @8:34 PM

Article image
Ex-Trump workers describe egocentric micromanager: 'Donald loves Donald'
Interviews with former employees point to detail-obsessed boss with little regard for diversity or low-level staff: ‘His identity is wrapped around being a winner’

Oliver Laughland in New York

14, Mar, 2016 @7:01 PM

Article image
Donald Trump labels Clinton 'unstable' as he edges away from Putin relationship
Republican says Hillary Clinton could shoot a random person ‘in the heart’ and get away with it, and claims Putin links meaningful only if US gets a good deal

Matthew Teague in Pensacola, Florida

10, Sep, 2016 @2:59 AM

Article image
Donald Trump vetoed SNL sketches that 'went a little bit too far'
Republican frontrunner hosts comedy show to protests outside NBC but critical reaction to show lacking skits deemed ‘too risqué’ is muted

Oliver Laughland in New York

08, Nov, 2015 @3:35 PM