|Whose Justice, Which Radicalism?
A Brief Review of
Woody Guthrie, American Radical.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
I’ve long been a fan of folk music, in its literal sense of being the music of the people, and in this regard, Woody Guthrie was the quintessential folk singer. In some ways, simply being a folk musician is itself a radical act, but the new book Woody Guthrie, American Radical by Will Kaufman explores in great detail the radical aspects of Woody Guthrie’s life and songwriting. I’ve read other biographies of Guthrie, but probably still harbored some false conceptions about him that were deflated over the course of reading Kaufman’s book. It’s easy, I suppose, to misconstrue the folk singer who is renowned for writing such songs as “This land is your land,” as the peace-loving hippy sort of radical who wants little more than for everyone to get along and to live in harmony with each other and with nature. Granted, many of the next generation of folk singers after Guthrie, who interpreted and popularized many of his songs were indeed this kind of radical.
Kaufman, however, drives home the point throughout his book that Guthrie was not this kind of radical. Rather, he locates Guthrie within a stream of left-wing American radicalism that is largely forgotten today. “Generations of Cold Warriors, conservatives, and neocons (both inside and outside of the labor movement)” Kaufman says, “had so effectively done their job in establishing left-wing radicalism as ‘un-American’ that many people … had grown up unaware that there had ever been such a thing as an American radical tradition” (xvii). This American tradition of radicalism was largely reactionary, and it lashed back at the bastions of American wealth and power with a violence similar to that with which it had been long oppressed on the American soil. Although he typically toned down his rhetoric in his song-writing, Kaufman makes the case that Guthrie was driven by an anger that made him sympathetic to the idea of “the violent overthrow of capitalism,” and that he also was unrepentant in the fondness he held for Stalin.
Twenty (or even ten) years ago, I would have been much more sympathetic to Guthrie’s sort of radicalism. Today, however, I am weary of these power struggles that ultimately privilege a few (Stalin on one hand and the Rockefellers, etc. on the other), and are not in the best interest of the common good. We need a sort of radicalism that rejects the plagues of both Right and Left, a radicalism that (as the Latin root of that word implies) is rooted in ultra-local places (neighborhoods, towns, maybe even cities on its largest scale), and is committed to and engaged in the (non-violent) struggles for good of those places and the people who make their homes there. We need churches that believe that the places in which they exist matter and are deeply committed to acting accordingly, becoming – to use Gerhard Lohfink’s term – contrast societies, communities that bear witness in their life together and their life amongst their neighbors that a different way is possible.
Kaufman’s work is highly recommended for anyone interested in folk music or counter-cultural movements; it provides a deeper look at the ideologies that not only guided Guthrie, but also were an important – and near-forgotten – thread of American history. For me, it not only shattered the rosy images of Guthrie that had formed in my head, but it also offered a superb opportunity to reflect on the nature of radicalism and their relevance to our radical call to follow in the way of Jesus. And this sort of reflection is sorely needed today as it is in all ages that have gone before us.