I have for some time been meaning to start up a series on the radicals of American history, and what has spurred me to action is the recent death of Harry Belafonte. Although known for his singing and songwriting career and civil rights activism, less is mentioned about his touting of communist regimes abroad (such as East Germany), praising the regime of Hugo Chavez, regarding Cuba a model for the United States, calling for the jailing of opponents of Barack Obama, and declaring George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” in 2006 (Capshaw). There are a number of people in American history who have played this sort of double game of calling for more freedoms at home but embracing totalitarianism abroad (and in Belafonte’s case, calling for it against political opponents at home).
I want to make clear what I regard as “radical”. For the purposes of this series, it means supporting a severe departure from the founding principles of the United States, to move away from individual rights for “collective” rights, and to embrace a totalitarian philosophy. I originally wanted the first entry to be W.E.B. DuBois, but I think it’s more appropriate given Belafonte’s passing to start with a fellow singer and songwriter, a legend of folk music, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967).
Born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Oklahoma to Democratic politician and land speculator Charles Guthrie, a man who may have participated in a 1911 lynching and had, according to Woody, joined the KKK after its 1915 revival, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) was both a major figure in folk music and a political radical. He was one of the “Okies” who traveled to California for work during the Dust Bowl, and a number of his songs are based on working conditions faced by said workers. He became famous for his musical performances of hillbilly and folk music, and his themes resonated with many who were facing hard times. Some of his hits included “Cumberland Gap”, “Crawdad Song” and “Tear the Fascists Down”. Guthrie had his political awakening while appearing on radio station KFVD. There, he met newscaster Ed Robbin, a staunch left-winger, who mentored Guthrie on politics and introduced him to numerous socialists and communists (John Steinbeck among them).
He was outspoken against fascism and Nazism and he placed on his guitar a label that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists”. One of his most famous songs is “This Land is Your Land”, which although is often regarded as one of those great American songs, it was in fact a retort to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which he thought was too frequently played on the radio and his song asked how God could bless a nation that had its socioeconomic problems (Leonard). Guthrie’s music and his politics were, in fact, intertwined.
Although Guthrie never publicly labeled himself a communist, he was supportive of the CPUSA and, according to author Aaron J. Leonard, was during 1942 a member of the party before he was booted for discipline issues, namely his failure to show up at a street corner to sell the latest issues of the Communist Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, after he had pledged to do so. Guthrie also wrote a song in support of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (which convinced many American communists to abandon the party) as well as the Soviet invasion of Poland. Guthrie also opposed FDR granting loans to Finland to counter Soviet aggression as well as American involvement in World War II right up until Operation Barbarossa, a stance that perfectly aligned with that of Stalin and the CPUSA. Indeed, Guthrie was supportive of Stalin and never renounced him.
Over the years, Guthrie’s behavior became increasingly erratic and at times even violent, and in 1952, it was finally figured out that he had Huntington’s disease. His mother, who had become mentally ill in her final years, had died of the same disease and his first two daughters would also die of it. Despite his diagnosis, the FBI, which had been monitoring him for some time for his socialist and communist activities, would continue to do so. Guthrie would be in and out of hospitals until his death on October 3, 1967. He had great influence on a number of others who would arise on the music scene, including Bob Dylan (who he mentored), Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash (McCurdy). However, it should not be forgotten that Guthrie embraced communist politics, including a staunch support for one of history’s greatest mass murderers. After all, had he embraced the racial and nationalistic offshoot of socialism, there likely would be no Woody Guthrie Festival or a postage stamp. The truth, as I see it, is that there is a portion of the public who just won’t believe that communism was all that bad or that all is needed is just the right leader. Maybe this is because the baleful outcomes of communism are downplayed in their education, maybe they’ve had teachers sympathetic with such causes, maybe their antipathy towards private enterprise outweighs anything else, or maybe their parents were just old radicals themselves.
Capshaw, R. (2023, April 26). Here’s What Corporate Media Won’t Tell You About Lifelong Communist Harry Belafonte. The Federalist.
Leonard, A.J. Woody Guthrie’s Communism and “This Land Is Your Land”. History News Network.
McCurdy, B. (2022, July 14). Song Stories: Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads”. Library of Congress Blogs.