In 1940 Woody Guthrie came to New York City on the invitation of actor and activist Will Geer. The two like-minded friends shared a sympathy towards labor workers treated badly by greedy corporates and business moguls. They met in California, were they went to worker camps in the San Joaquin Valley, visited the Hoovervilles and saw first-hand the poor living conditions of immigrants working the land for meager compensation. Guthrie was deeply affected by what he saw, as many of those immigrants came from his home state of Oklahoma. 15% of that state’s residents migrated to the west coast in search or jobs during the great depression and they received the derogatory term “Okies”. The harsh situation these immigrants faced at the time is forever immortalized in Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Immigrant Mother”, taken in 1936 in a pea-pickers camp in California.
1940 was an important year for Woody Guthrier. That year the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was released and gave the world at large a view into the life of immigrant workers in the 1930s. Steinbeck wrote a magnificent portrayal of the Joad family and their harrowing experience as they leave their farm in Oklahoma, through the difficult journey to the west coast and their arrival at the hostile environment in California, having to eke out a living anyplace work could be found. Guthrie wrote the song Tom Joad, in which told the story of the main character in the book.
Between 1937 and 1940 Guthrie wrote many songs about people and events in the great depression era, and in 1940 he recorded them for Victor Records. They were released as a package containing three 78 rpm records and a booklet, collectively named Dust Bowl Ballads. It is perhaps the first concept album, spare classical program music, as all the songs have a unifying theme around the experiences of the folks Guthrie sympathized with. The album, which was released in 1964 as an LP by Folkways Records, has been extremely influential for many social-conscious singers of later generations, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer.
1940 was also the year that Guthrie wrote his most famous song This Land Is Your Land. The song was a response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, and originally had a cynical view of the equality, or lack thereof, of how this land is shared among its citizens:
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.
Woody Guthrie did not record the song until 1944, and at that point dropped this verse in favor of the more universally accepted song we know today. The message of the original version surely escapes many who sing this song in patriotic events, celebrating inclusiveness and equality.
Also in 1940 the book We Are Many by Ella Reeve Bloor was published, and it inspired Guthrie to write two of his best songs. The author was a prominent feminist, socialist and communist in the first half of the 20th century. Her granddaughter, actress Herta Ware, was married to Will Geer at the time and no doubt Woody Guthrie was well aware of her activism. The book was her autobiography, and in one of its chapters she described her experiences with the miners community, focusing on two incidents that happened in 1913 and 1914.
In 1913 the northwest part of Michigan was home to a large miners community that worked the copper mines in the area. Seeking to improve their miserable working conditions and wages, the miners went on strike in July 1913. By December of that year the strike was into its fifth month with nothing resolved and tensions were high. On Christmas Eve 400 people consisting of miners and their families gathered in the town of Calumet to celebrate the holidays. The place was known as Italian Hall and its only entrance was a steep staircase that led to the hall. During the festivities someone called “Fire”, causing panic and a rush to the narrow entrance. In the ensuing pandemonium seventy three died as they crushed under the mass of people rushing to the exit. Fifty nine of them were children. There was no fire and although the identity of the person who called it was never revealed, it was likely an anti-union agitator. More on this event here.
In 1914 a major coal miners strike took place in southern Colorado. Many of them were living in a tent colony in Ludlow. The strike was about fundamental labor and housing issues that today are no-brainers but a hundred years ago were not deemed important enough for employers. Seven months into the strike a fighting started between militia guards hired by the coal company and armed miners in the colony. After the shooting stopped, two women and nine children were found dead under one of the tents. They were seeking shelter from the flying bullets and died from suffocation when the tent was set on fire. More on this event here.
Guthrie found a need to retell these tragic stories and the extreme injustice and indifference to human dignity portrayed in them. He wrote 1913 Massacre and Ludlow Massacre, both in the first person narrator style, and you truly feel part of the events as the stories unfold. The songs were recorded by Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records on May 1945, and originally released in 1946 as STRUGGLE: DOCUMENTARY #1. They later appeared in the album Struggle, released by Folkways Records in 1976. Both album covers show an illustration of the Ludlow massacre burials.
The story telling quality of the lyrics in both songs is in my opinion the most effective way to sing a protest song. Rather than hear a singer accusing the perpetrators of social injustice, I prefer to immerse myself in the events and feel the pain of marginalized people. Very few can tell these stories as effectively as Woody Guthrie.
1913 Massacre had a big impact on Bob Dylan, who used the melody of the song and wrote Song For Woody, the song from his first album that he dedicated to his hero. Here is the 1913 Massacre as Woody Guthrie sang it in 1945.
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Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I will take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.
I will take you in a door and up a high stairs,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I will let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.
You ask about work and you ask about pay,
They’ll tell you they make less than a dollar a day,
Working the copper claims, risking their lives,
So it’s fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.
There’s talking and laughing and songs in the air,
And the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know it you’re friends with us all,
And you’re dancing around and around in the hall.
Well a little girl sits down by the Christmas tree lights,
To play the piano so you gotta keep quiet,
To hear all this fun you would not realize,
That the copper boss’ thug men are milling outside.
The copper boss’ thugs stuck their heads in the door,
One of them yelled and he screamed, “there’s a fire,”
A lady she hollered, “there’s no such a thing.
Keep on with your party, there’s no such thing.”
A few people rushed and it was only a few,
“It’s just the thugs and the scabs fooling you,”
A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.
And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor,
The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,
While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.
Such a terrible sight I never did see,
We carried our children back up to their tree,
The scabs outside still laughed at their spree,
And the children that died there were seventy-three.
The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they cried and the miners they moaned,
“See what your greed for money has done.”