Commemorations are being held across the country this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s greatest songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie wrote hundreds of folk songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Do Re Mi” and “The Ranger’s Command.” While Guthrie is best remembered as a musician, he also had a deeply political side. At the height of McCarthyism, Guthrie spoke out for labor and civil rights and against fascism. In this one-hour special, you will hear interviews and music from folk singer Pete Seeger, the British musician Billy Bragg, and the historian Will Kaufman, author of the new book, “Woody Guthrie, American Radical.”
“Woody’s original songs, the songs that he wrote back in the 1930s … with these images of people losing their houses to the banks, of gamblers on the stock markets making millions, when ordinary working people can’t afford to make ends meet, and of people dying for want of proper free healthcare, you know, this song could have been written anytime in the last five years, really, in the United States of America,” says Bragg, who has long been inspired by Guthrie.
Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” was written in 1940 in response to Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” “Woody saw [‘God Bless America’] as a strident, jingoistic, complacent, tub-thumping anthem to American greatness,” Kaufman says. “And now, he had just come from the Dust Bowl. He’d just come from the barbed-wire gates of California’s Eden there. He’d seen the Hoovervilles. He’d seen the bread lines. He’d seen labor activists getting their heads busted. And so, he’s thinking, what — God bless — what America, you know, is Kate Smith singing of?” In 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land Is Your Land” for the inauguration of President Obama.