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Against the Boss Man!

November 30, 2009

(Hard Travelin’ album cover)

“Every little [work] song [is] easy and simple, but mighty pretty, and [they] caught on like a whirlwind–it didn’t need sheet music, it didn’t need nickel phonographs, and it didn’t take nothing but a little fanning from the bosses, the landlords, the deputies, and the cops, and the big shots, and the bankers, and the business men to flare up like an oil field on fire, and the big cloud of black smoke turned into a cyclone–and cut a swath straight to the door of the man that started the whole thing, the greedy rich people.” (Lomax, Guthrie, 16).

Woody Guthrie had a problem with every injustice, but it is clear that he loathed no one more than the Man. Anyone with power and money to lord over those smaller, lesser people, was on the bad side of Mr. Guthrie, and he had no qualms about telling them so. Woody Guthrie was not the only singer outraged by the boss man who lived on the hill. Hating the boss was a wonderful inspiration for song, and many work tunes reflect this very sentiment. The other view held by Guthrie, was that anything could be a song and the simpler and plainer, the better. “And the words don’t even have to be spelt right.” (Lomax, Guthrie, 19). Woody believed in God and religion as he believed in the One Big Union. He felt that because God owned everything, it was impossible and unjust for one man to say that he owned anything, much less that he owned people and their lives. These men were rich, yet they gave nothing to those in need as the Bible says. He wrote of peace and unity, and he spoke against those lofty men who would try to divide his country with unfair lines of class. Woody saw the inequality in his world and to rectify it, he sang his songs and the songs of others. He was, in the greatest sense of the phrase, the voice of the people. (Lomax, 281-282). Archetypal examples of these songs are The Union Fights the Battle of Freedom, which is sung to the tune Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,

The union fights the battle of freedom, freedom, freedom.
The union fights the battle of freedom,
And the bosses come tumbling town. (Lomax, 318)

and Union Maid by Woody Guthrie,

Oh, you cain’t scare me, I’m sticking by th’ Union,
Sticking by th’ Union, sticking by th’ Union,
Oh, you cain’t scare me I’m sticking by th’ Union,
Sticking by th’ Union till the day I die. (Lomax, 324).

Guthrie’s approach to folk music and protest songs was more harsh and far less appologetic than other union singers. He was angry and he let it be known how strong he was. He did not mourn or complain in his songs; he demanded, and if that demand seemed a little violent, than so be it. In contrast to Pete Seeger’s, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender,” Woody’s guitar read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

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