When Woody Guthrie arrived in Los Angeles in the Spring of 1937, he was something of a hick. A hillbilly folksinger. A refugee from the Dust Bowl. Like a million other out-of-work Americans, “jus’ lookin’ for a job a work.”
He landed that job at KFVD radio station, where he performed a live daily show consisting of folksy wisdom and down-home songs. Traditional music, plus an increasing number of his own original creations. His audience was the growing population of “Okies” and other Dust Bowl refugees, who had come to California in search of pastures of plenty.
But something happened to Woody in that first year in LA. And that’s the fascinating topic of Darryl Holter’s research. Holter, a professor and folk singer, performed at the Harmony Bar in Madison on April 23.
Some years ago Holter began pouring through the archives, digging out Woody’s old song books, noting the subject and tone of the songs and documenting Woody’s evolution from a backwoods folksinger into one of the most sophisticated social commentators of his time.
Some of Woody’s earliest social commentaries were pretty politically backward. He mocked some of the New Deal work programs, for example. But, over time, those lyrics were dropped and we see a new crop songs, many focusing on the plight of agricultural workers and the struggle to form unions.
By 1939, Woody was performing mostly for “movement” audiences and his lyrics and writings had a definite left- wing slant. That’s where we get those labor classics like “Union Maid” and “This Land is Your Land.”
Holter made a study of “This Land,” the song that has come to be something of an anthem for mass working class movements in this country. It seems that Woody never considered it all that important. He, after all, was knocking out hundreds of new songs a year and this was one in the stream.
Woody penned “This Land” over a couple of days in January 1940, reportedly in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Then he pretty much forgot about it. Holter did the song justice at the Harmony Bar, with some of the “forgotten” original lyrics added in.
Holter is a former Madisonian, former member of the TAA and a founder of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. He currently teaches history at the University of Southern California, among many other things.
His latest CD, entitled “Crooked Hearts,” includes original works. It’s available, as they used to say, “at fine record stores everywhere.”
Woody Guthrie died in New York in 1967. But Holter and others are celebrating his 100th birthday this year with a series of concerts and events across the country. See “Coming Events” in this issue.
–Originally published in the July, 2012, issue of Union Labor News.
2011 was a great year for books about Wisconsin labor. These book reviews were compiled from publishers’ websites by Laurie Wermter, AFSCME Local 2412 activist and member of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. –ed.
When William “Blue” Jenkins was only 6 months old, he moved with his parents from a Mississippi sharecropper’s farm to the industrial city of Racine, Wisconsin with dreams of a new life. As an African-American in the pre-civil rights era, Blue came face to face with racism: the Ku Klux Klan hung a black figure in effigy from a tree in the Jenkins family’s yard. Growing up, Blue knew where blacks could shop, eat, and get a job in Racine – and where they couldn’t. The injustices that confronted Blue in his young life would drive his desire to make positive changes to his community and workplace in adulthood.
This new title in the Badger Biographies series shares Blue Jenkins’s story as it acquaints young readers with African-American and labor history. Following an all-star career as a high school football player, Blue became involved in unions through his work at Belle City Malleable. As World War II raged on, he participated in the home-front battle against discrimination in work, housing, and economic opportunity. When Blue became president of the union at Belle City, he organized blood drives and fought for safety regulations. He also helped to integrate labor union offices. In 1962, he became president of the U.A.W. National Foundry in the Midwest, and found himself in charge of 50,000 foundry union members.
Labor leader, civil rights activist, and family man, Blue shows readers how the fight for workers’ and minorities’ rights can be fought and won through years of hard work.
Every work of art has a story behind it. In 1886 the German American artist Robert Koehler painted a dramatic wide-angle depiction of an imagined confrontation between factory workers and their employer. H. Koehler, who grew up in Milwaukee, called this oil painting The Strike. It has had a long and tumultuous international history as a symbol of class struggle and the cause of workers’ rights. First exhibited just days before the tragic Chicago Haymarket riot, The Strike became an inspiration for the labor movement. In the midst of the campaign for an eight-hour workday, it gained international attention at expositions in Paris, Munich, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Though the painting fell into obscurity for decades in the early twentieth century, The Strike lived on in wood-engraved reproductions in labor publications. Its purchase, restoration, and exhibition by New Left activist Lee Baxandall in the early 1970s launched it to international fame once more, and collectors and galleries around the world scrambled to acquire it. It is now housed in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, Germany.
Art historian James M. Dennis has crafted a compelling “biography” of Koehler’s painting: its exhibitions, acclaim, neglect, and rediscovery. He introduces its German-born creator and politically diverse audiences and traces the painting’s acceptance and rejection through the years, exploring how class and sociopolitical movements affected its reception. Dennis considers the significance of key figures in the painting, such as the woman asserting her presence in the center of action. He compellingly explains why The Strike has earned its identity as the iconic painting of the industrial labor movement.
“A fascinating study of an artist and the fate of his most renowned painting. . ..Clear and readable…it takes on the character of a cultural mystery.” —Lewis Erenberg, author of The Greatest Fight of Our Generation
For Labor, Race, and Liberty: George Edwin Taylor, His Historic Run for the White House, and the Making of Independent Black Politics, by Bruce L. Mouser, University of Wisconsin Press, 2011, $24.95.
More than one hundred years before Barack Obama, George Edwin Taylor made presidential history. Born in the antebellum South to a slave and a freed woman, Taylor became the first African American ticketed as a political party’s nominee for president of the United States, running against Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
Orphaned as a child at the peak of the Civil War, Taylor spent several years homeless before boarding a Mississippi riverboat that dropped him in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Taken in by an African-American farm family, Taylor attended a private school and eventually rose to prominence as the owner and editor of a labor newspaper (The Wisconsin Labor Advocate) and as a vocal leader in Wisconsin’s People’s Party. At a time when many African Americans felt allegiance to the Republican Party for its support of abolition, Taylor’s sympathy with the labor cause drew him first to the national Democratic Party and then to an African American party, the newly-formed National Liberty Party, which in 1904 named him its presidential candidate.
Bruce L. Mouser follows Taylor’s life and career in Arkansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida, giving life to a figure representing a generation of African American idealists whose initial post-slavery belief in political and social equality in America gave way to the despair of the Jim Crow decades that followed.
“A generation before A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Ella Baker, there was George Edwin Taylor. Rich in detail, this compelling story sheds light on black labor struggles in the Upper Midwest and brings to life an American civil rights hero and pioneer of independent black politics at the turn of the twentieth century.”
—Omar H. Ali, author of In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics & Third Party Movements in the U.S.
Personal stories and 150 photos paint an intimate portrait of protesters as diverse as America itself. From the moving tale of an unsettled Vietnam vet who finally felt welcomed back to his country, to a delightful encounter with high school students who skipped class to support their teachers, these are the faces and stories behind the largest demonstrations to hit Wisconsin in forty years. Share the passion, motivations, and humor of these everyday people who marched in the snow, stood in opposition to their government, and captivated a nation.
“Wisconsin history through the eyes of real people—beautiful, full-color photographs capture the spirit of the February and March 2011 protests. Individual protesters in the essays, young and old, employed and unemployed, union and non-union, tell their stories about why they felt they had to add their voices to the movement, in a calm and rational manner. The photography alone would tell the story of the late-winter, early-spring protests against Governor Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill,” but the 19 essays about individuals who were there bring it home in a way that is not overtly political, but personal, caring, and thought-provoking.” —Amazon.com review by Debbie Anders
In February of 2011, the people of Wisconsin changed the political landscape in America overnight. By fighting back against their governor’s attack on collective bargaining, they inspired progressives across the country and revived the conversation on organized labor, direct-action, and civil resistance. This mix of essays, blog posts, and original writing looks at what happened, what it means, and what comes next—and includes the real-time, fast-paced story of the Capitol occupation as told through tweets from those who were on the inside.
To download a free PDF copy of this book, go to the following website:
www.WeAreWisconsinBook.com and click on the link: +Download the PDF