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Mural at 510 West Broadway, Hwy. 56, downtown Okemah, Oklahoma, depicting Woody Guthrie and Okfuskee County history. Painted by DeAnna Mauldin in 1994.

Mural at 510 West Broadway, Hwy. 56, downtown Okemah, Oklahoma, depicting Woody Guthrie and Okfuskee County history. Painted by DeAnna Mauldin in 1994. (Photo: Uyvsdi/cc)

For 2020 and Beyond: 'Keep Hoping Machine Running'

All things considered, we could do worse than embracing Woody Guthrie's resolutions for the new year.

Randall Amster

It was a racially charged era, fascism was in a resurgence, and people were fighting for political and economic justice at the grassroots. That was 1943, and on January 1st of that year a great American troubadour, Woody Guthrie, handwrote (and doodled) a list of "New Years Rulin's" that serve as a pretty good reminder of what's important in life and how to engage the world for positive change.

You probably know a bit about Guthrie's life and work. He grew up in the Dust Bowl, was involved with a multitude of progressive and radical political scenes, wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in 1940 (as a response to more popularized songs such as "God Bless America"), and inspired a generation of folk singers in the process. He was famously anti-fascist (often appearing with the sticker "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar), stood up against racism and the "color line," and even did battle over these types of issues with "Old Man Trump" (the President's father, specifically) in struggles and in his songs.

So all things considered, we could do worse than embracing Woody's resolutions for the new year. In particular, a few of them stand out as being spot-on for the tenor of our times. Here's a brief overview:

1-12: Take Care of Ourselves

A reminder that whatever else we do in the world, taking care of ourselves and staying healthy is paramount. Woody gets very specific here, so consider these as they might apply to your own life, but some are generally resonant: "eat good" and "look good" sum up a common personal growth trajectory.

13-14: Listen and Read

This was before the video era took off, but the lessons still hold: "read good books" and "listen to the radio" are ways to stay informed, keep one's mind engaged, and maintain long-form mental capacities. This is more critical than ever in a wired world that truncates attention spans and outsources thinking.

15-20: Stay Positive

Here Woody starts to get into the inner realm, with reminders to "stay glad" and "dream good." His call to "KEEP HOPING MACHINE RUNNING" could serve as a 2020's slogan in light of today's existential challenges around climate change and environmental degradation, and the evident struggles up ahead.

21-24: Follow the Money

This area may not have been Woody's strong suit, but he understood the importance of covering the bills and keeping the lights on, so to speak. The calls to "save dough" and "don't waste time" connect two spheres that are always under pressure in a digital economy where time and money are solicited.

25-27: "This Machine…"

Woody's gift was prolific songwriting that discerned the human experience in a way that was accessible, and his life's work connected song and dance with revolutionary politics. He took seriously the notion that it was essential to "beat fascism" and likewise understood that celebrating the good is part of this.

28-31: All You Need Is Love

A timely reminder of the power of love, which can be challenging to maintain both close in and far away. Woody connects the two realms, asking us to love not only selected individuals but to "love everybody" without qualifiers; this doesn't mean we forgo contestation, just that we do it with compassion at heart.

32-33: Wake Up!

This isn't a time for fence-sitting and being wracked with doubt about appearances and popularity. Woody is asking us to "make up your mind" on issues that matter, and to manifest this energy with the plaintive call to "WAKE UP AND FIGHT." It's hard to imagine a more apt moment to take this seriously.

Whatever the year and decade ahead has in store, it's likely to be a combination of devastation and inspiration with many points on the spectrum in between. But the poles of profound crisis and compelling opportunity are almost certain to continue manifesting with greater clarity, as the social and political fabric further rends and as the planet's ecological processes are thrown into deeper chaos. As we enter this decade—which may be our best remaining window of time to take action—it's worth looking back for some encouragement to continue the struggle and keep hope with us. May it be so.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is co-director and teaching professor of environmental studies at Georgetown University. His books include "Peace Ecology" (2015), "Anarchism Today" ( 2012), and "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (2008).

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