Thursday, 7 May 2009

A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen

by Bryan K. Garman

As a new generation of what Cunningham called "Woody's children" recognized that their beloved vagabond may have also shared their politics, they quickly identified him as their heroic spiritual grandfather. In a special tribute to Guthrie published in the left-wing Mainstream magazine in 1963, folksinger Phil Ochs chastised those who were unaware of his politics. "I have run across some people who seem to consider [Guthrie] solely as a writer of great camp songs," wrote Ochs. "They cannot fathom the political significance of a great part of his works." Groups such as the Folksmiths defanged Guthrie for their summer camp audiences, but as many of these campers grew up, they anxiously historicized and adapted his work to suit their own purposes. In Guthrie, the New Left found a tradition that legitimated its own cultural work, that gave authority to a burgeoning political movement dismissed by critics for being young, inexperienced, and insubordinate. Ochs explained that Guthrie's "close association with the unions exemplified the traditional connection between folk music and social movements" and that as the civil rights and pacifist movements unfolded, "it was inevitable that folk music would follow its natural tendency of commentary and identify again with the times." Ochs was an important figure in reestablishing this connection. Ochs was an important figure in reestablishing this connection. Whereas Dylan's "Song for Woody" downplayed Guthrie's political legacy, Ochs's maudlin "Bound for Glory" (1963) reminded his audience that Guthrie had steadfastly supported unions and courageously defended his beliefs. Perhaps more important, Ochs urged young Americans to embrace and build on Guthrie's ideological commitment. "Oh why the sing the songs and forget about the aim," asked Ochs. "He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?"

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