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Woody Guthrie, says Daughter, was a 'Commonist' Not a 'Communist'

As many celebrate the folk singer's legacy, his message finds resonance amid current crises

Common Dreams staff

Woody Guthrie wrote not only protest numbers but songs hymning the US electrification process. He was a 'commonist' not a 'communist' his daughter says. (Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Redferns)

On the eve of what would be his 100th birthday Nora Guthrie says of her famous folk singer father, Woody Guthrie, that he was too busy breaking molds to fit into one and always resisted being "put in the straight jacket' of political parties.

Woody Guthrie was "a commonist, not a communist," his daughter says in an interview with The Guardian's Ed Vulliamy.

Born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, Guthrie came from humble (and conservative) origins to become one of America's most beloved radicals and musicians.  Leading up to the centennial of his birth, remembrances and reflections of the man abound and many events are planned in celebration of his life, music, and cascading influence on American culture.

More than 40 years after his death, and with the obvious glare of depression-era themes returning to contemporary life in the United States, Woody's songs have as much relevance as ever.

"The sad truth," Robert Santelli, director of the Grammy Museum and author of several books on music history, told the New Star-Ledger, "is that many of the issues that Guthrie wrote about are still very much with us. Disrespect for immigrants, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, disenfranchisement, the lack of desire to aid people in trouble, we still see all of that.

"Guthrie saw his family, friends and relatives lose their farms to the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl, or both. He developed a sense of responsibility to become the voice of those people who had no voice."


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British rocker and folk musician Billy Bragg, who helped bring Guthrie's music to the current generation with his Mermaid Avenue sessions with US band Wilco, says Woody's message is as urgent as ever. "Woody had 'This Machine Kills Fascists' painted on his guitar. We're still fighting that fight now," said Bragg.

On Tuesday, Smithsonian Folkways will release "Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection." The boxed set, which features an essay by Santelli, collects more than 50 of Guthrie’s best-known songs, with six previously unreleased tracks.

Rounder Records is also planning a tribute to Guthrie which will culminate in seven CDs and a book by the label's founder, Bill Nowlin.

Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie, who has established himself as a well-known American folk musician in his own right, will return to his father's home town on Wednesday to celebrate the centennial in a solo acoustic concert at the newly renovated Crystal Theater in Okemah.

"To put it in perspective, my father didn't see himself as an originator of ideas," Arlo Guthrie said of his iconic father in an interview earlier this year. "He saw himself as somebody who was a link in a long chain of people who have tried to make a difference and who stood up for certain principles that are uniquely American."

And so, he said, speaking of all those both perform and love Woody's music and fight for a more just world, "It's not a big stretch to see yourself in that long link somewhere."

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