America is a nation on the ropes. The economy has been devastated by mismanagement at home and turmoil abroad. In Washington, a divisive Democratic president’s effort to address the crisis has led to accusations of socialism. Crops wither as the Southwest suffers under record high temperatures and drought. Class resentments are simmering, the disenfranchised take to the streets to protest the depredations of the wealthy, while monied interests mobilize to break the back of organized labor.
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But enough about the 1930s. Let’s talk about the present. Just a few weeks from now, right around Labor Day appropriately enough, the University of Nebraska Press, through its Bison Books imprint, will publish a new edition of Hard Hitting Songs For Hard-Hit People. This remarkable collection of American folk and protest songs is your genuine lost classic. Assembled in the early 1940s but not published ’til a quarter-century later, Hard Hitting Songs features a dream team of talent, the likes of which comes along only once in several lifetimes. The songs were collected and compiled by the renowned folklorist Alan Lomax; Pete Seeger edited and transcribed the music, which includes contributions from Joe Hill, Big Bill Broonzy, A.P. Carter and Lead Belly, among others. John Steinbeck—a Nobel Prize-winner, if you please—wrote the foreword. But the star of the show, without a doubt, is the one and only Woody Guthrie, whose centennial we celebrate this year.
In 1940, Lomax recorded Guthrie for the Library of Congress. In Washington, Guthrie also struck up a friendship with a then 21-year-old Seeger. The three men renewed their acquaintance the next year in New York, where Lomax unveiled a trove of songs he’d collected but had been unable to publish due to their politically sensitive nature. Seeger and Guthrie volunteered to turn the material into a songbook. Guthrie threw himself into the project, working closely with Seeger on the arrangements, contributing many of his own songs to the book and adapting or rewriting many others.
More than anything else, though, Woody Guthrie gave Hard Hitting Songs its distinctive character. In his notes and introductions for each song, many of them longer than the song itself, Guthrie created the style he would later employ in his 1943 memoir Bound For Glory, a distillation of his speaking voice: plain-spoken, funny, compassionate, pissed-off, righteous and endlessly quotable. Here’s a taste of Guthrie’s mission statement, from his introduction:
“I’m a going to fool around here and make a song writer out of you. …. [A]ll you got to do is just park yourself under a shade tree, or maybe at a desk, if you still got a desk, and haul off and write down some way you think this old world could be fixed so’s it would be twice as level and half as steep.... You can write it down with the stub of a burnt match, or with an old chewed up penny pencil, on the back of a sack or on the edge of an almanac.... This book is songs like that. If you’re too highbrow for that, you can take your pants and go home right now.”
I wish I had space to quote the whole thing. Guthrie was a wonder when he got rolling.
The original typescript of Hard Hitting Songs knocked around New York for years, but never found a publisher. The manuscript was broken up, the original pages were folded into the reference library of the folk magazine Sing Out!, Seeger and Guthrie both moved on to bigger things, and that might have been that—until, miraculously, a complete set of carbon copies surfaced in the mid 1960s.
When Hard Hitting Songs finally saw print in 1967, it already seemed like an anachronism. Today, it reads like an artifact from lost Atlantis. It’s startling to realize how far rightward our political discourse has shifted in just three generations, and how thoroughly entangled economic ideology has become with notions of what it means to be “an American.” Reading these songs and stories, you realize that there was a time, within living memory, when socialism—real revolutionary socialism, mind you, not warmed-over Keynesian economics—had a place in American life.
There was a time when you could poke fun at the First World problems of the well-to-do with impunity: “You ain’t seen no Hard Times til you come over some time and see my Hard Times,” Guthrie writes. “Everybody seems to think that they’re having a Hard Time; even some of these Poodle Dog Paraders along 5th Avenue... [the] only thing that keeps some of ‘em on an even keel is that pooch hound to guide ‘em down the road.” A crack like that—these days they’d call it “class warfare.”
And the invective could be stronger than that. There was even a time when a housewife from the Kentucky coal country, her husband and child dead from black lung, could write a song called “I Hate the Capitalist System.” And why shouldn’t she? It ruined her life.
But it would be nigh impossible, today, for someone like that to write that song, to even think those thoughts. The coal miner’s got a flag on the bumper of his busted-up F-150, but it ain’t the hammer and sickle. Capitalism has been equated with freedom, and the working-class people who suffer under it most are the very ones who praise it the loudest. To do otherwise is to “hate America.”
But try telling me with a straight face that the guy who wrote “This Land Is Your Land” hated America. Tell me that Alan Lomax, who devoted his life to collecting and preserving American folkways, didn’t love his country. You try telling me that and, just like Woody, I’ll look you in the eye and tell you what I think of you; and Woody’s favored epithet, “You low life son of a bitch,” will only be the start of it.
Jack Feerick is a man of constant sorrow, and has been in trouble all his days. He is critic-at-large for Popdose, the place where he was borned and raised.