Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That Machine Still Kills Fascists

I found a cultural treasure trove last night in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern suburb of D.C. It was closing night of the DC Labor Film Festival, and they were showing Bound For Glory, a 1976 biographical film of Woody Guthrie, at the historic AFI Silver Theater.
Why had I never heard of this film? I don't know, but I was deprived. If you like Woody, you'll like this movie. The film does a good job of blending it all together--the music, the land, the trains, the Dust Bowl desperation, the slave-wage farms, the peoples' resistance--into a bittersweetness that, to me, is the very taste of our history. It manages to throw in plenty of songs without turning into a musical. It shows Woody to be as much a union organizer as a musician. In fact, his refusal to water down his radical message and turn his back on working people keeps him from landing big music contracts. There's pickin', and singin', and organizin', and strikin'. And it's all one thing.

I also learned stuff about Woody in this film that I did not know. For instance, I obviously knew Woody was a friend of organized labor--shoot, in '39 and '40 he was a columnist for the Daily Worker--but I didn't know that he spent so much time union organizing and that, more than once, he got his ass kicked for it. This is not just the Woody Guthrie you met in kindergarten music class.


Someone once wrote of Woody in the New Yorker:
"Some day people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world."
That was written in the 1940s, and I think that it's long since come true. Woody is in our national DNA. He's become the emblem of an era, because we look back and see the best of us in him.

After the movie, the Film Fest crowd walked over to a nearby pub where The U-Liners, a local roots-rock band, were playing an all-Woody Guthrie set. It was a great way to end the evening. Beer, greasy food, and a bar full of people singing the chorus to Union Maid.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union!
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'till the day I die!
It was a great time. Thanks to the AFL-CIO DC metro council and the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute for putting on the film festival. And thanks to the The U-Liners for rocking.

I leave you with the progressive national anthem:


Becky said...

Woohoo Dave, this post has me fired up on a chilly morning. Sounds like a great documentary. I love that "Union Maid" song--you must know that the Old Crow Medicine Show does a great version of it.

I still think those Billy Bragg and Wilco albums from several years ago (maybe 10?) are a great homage/intro to Woody Guthrie. Especially "Union Song," "California Stars," "Let's Have Christ for President," and a bunch more. "Do Re Mi" was our personal anthem when we lived in California. Rock on today.

Dave said...

I think you actually introduced me to the Old Crow Medicine Show version. I remember it being good. I'll have to search for it on the tubes.

"Do Re Mi" is one of the best, and it's an especially good anthem for a southerner transplanted to California.