Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

“You Can’t Scare Me…”

No, this isn’t a Halloween post. If the postage stamp you see here isn’t enough of a clue, the rest of the title phrase is “I’m Sticking to the Union,” a song by Woody Guthrie.

(Woody Guthrie also wrote the song “This Land Is Your Land,” which isn’t the patriotic staple it’s been made out to be. An alternate verse goes:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Another verse was derogatory about the government’s response to the Great Depression. Guthrie was quite the socialist. But I digress.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Unions.

Unions have a bad rep. I’m not saying that there aren’t any reasons for this, but I am saying that unions have a real, positive function. Not all unions are about burying Jimmy Hoffa beneath the pitcher’s mound at some baseball stadium. They don’t all insist that their members can’t work for reasons specified in some clause-filled contract. And not all of them take weekly dues from employees’ paychecks while not doing anything at all for them.

Unions have legitimate functions. They always have.

Unions got their start when workers rebelled against companies and bosses that exploited them – kept their wages low and their jobs dangerous. And not just low like wages today are low. During the Great Depression, when Woody Guthrie was singing and the IWW organizing, Okies lived in camps and tried to feed whole families on the few cents a day they got for picking fruit.

The corporations fought back, of course. They employed strikebreakers to bust heads. (The union organizers were not blameless peaceniks. In addition to strikes and work stoppages, some of them resorted to bombs.)

But eventually, unions became legal and started working toward making life better for employees who had formerly been exploited. They got beneficial laws passed and virtually invented the 40-hour week, weekends, and vacations. They worked to outlaw child labor and unsafe working conditions in slaughterhouses and coal mines.

They’re so important that Cornell University (and some others) has a College of Industrial and Labor Relations, in addition to the usual ones like the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and my alma mater, the College of Arts and Sciences.

But what have unions done for us lately? I actually have an answer for that.

You see, my husband belongs to the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers union. And last year, he became a shop steward. Most of the time, that means that he and other union reps handle grievances that store employees have – instances where the management isn’t abiding by the contract on matters such as scheduling, taking breaks, and other routine matters.

The contract (and applicable law, for that matter) says that employees are entitled to breaks at regular intervals. A cashier at his store, who also happens to be diabetic, wasn’t receiving those breaks for lunch or even pee breaks when she needed them. Her managers weren’t giving her regular breaks because they were understaffed and no one could relieve her so she could relieve herself, as it were. The shop steward (my husband) and the union representative for the area brought a grievance and the management had to start filling in for the cashier themselves if there was no other employee available to give her a break.

Most people think of unions as people who negotiate wage and benefits packages with management. That is one of their most important functions. Recently, Dan was involved in the negotiations. They went on for months, in fits and starts. In the end, the company agreed to a $.50 per hour raise for all the workers – even the cart-pushers. It was less than the union wanted, but more than the company first offered.

Yes, there are problems between labor and management. And unions have been weakened over the years by unfavorable legislation that has tended to favor employers. (Don’t get me started on so-called “right to work” states. They’re anything but.)

But overall, I think that unions are still an important force in the business environment and a necessary one. From what I’ve seen, the UFCW is attentive and involved, putting forth their efforts to better the working conditions for employees. I’d like to think that Woody would have approved.

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Where Music and Politics Meet

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

This, the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s famous American ballad, is all that most people know of the song. It is repeatedly sung at patriotic events, civic occasions, and celebrations of American holidays.

According to Wikipedia, Guthrie wrote the song “in critical response to Irving Berlin‘s ‘God Bless America,‘ which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent.”

If people know any more of the song, then they know one or two of these verses:

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparking sands of her diamond deserts,
All around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, then I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

There are other verses, though, that aren’t commonly sung or even remembered. In them Guthrie spoke of the plight of ordinary people caught in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the economic crisis that afflicted the whole nation. These verses are usually left out because of their political/economic message, which were deemed sympathetic to communism.

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that said, “Private Property,”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway,
Nobody living can make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

Another verse, added by Guthrie’s friend, folksinger Pete Seeger, takes the political/social message even further, and includes a Bible reference:

Maybe you’ve been working as hard as you’re able,
But you’ve just got crumbs from the rich man’s table,
And maybe you’re thinking, was it truth or fable,
That this land was made for you and me.

With the political season heating up, Woody Guthrie has been much on my mind lately. Politicians have been quick to use popular songs in their campaigns based on their titles, but ignoring the lyrics. “This Land Is Your Land” was used in 1988 by George H.W. Bush. Guthrie, being long dead, couldn’t complain.

Other choices have been, well, problematic. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot used Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy,” a song about hopeless love. In 2000, George W. Bush was threatened with a lawsuit by Tom Petty to stop the candidate from using the singer’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and was criticized by other performers for using their tunes. (Primary candidate Mike Huckabee was also asked in 2008 to stop using Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”)

As The Washington Post reported,

The most famously misread song may have been Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” During his 1984 reelection campaign, President Reagan praised Springsteen’s “message of hope” during a stop in New Jersey. It wasn’t clear which song, or songs, Reagan meant (and there’s no record of Reagan’s campaign actually playing the song), but many assumed he was referring to “Born,” the title track of Springsteen’s best-selling album at the time. The song, of course, is about the opposite of hope; it’s the anguished cry of a Vietnam veteran, returning home to bleak prospects (“I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”). Springsteen later expressed irritation at being made an implicit part of Reagan’s morning-in-America reelection rhetoric.

Nor is this a phenomenon whose time has passed. Although the election season has barely started, there has already been at least one controversy. Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young (who of course can’t vote in American elections) can still express his opinions of them.

Young objected when Donald Trump’s crew played “Rockin’ in the Free World” during Trump’s trip to the podium to announce his campaign for President. As breitbart.com noted (http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2015/06/23/after-shaming-trump-neil-young-allows-bernie-sanders-to-use-campaign-song/), “an official statement from Young’s camp immediately responded, “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for President of the United States of America.” He had not authorized Trump’s use of the song, though the candidate’s campaign manager asserted that they had paid for the rights to do so. (Rights to use a song can usually be purchased from the music publisher.)

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, folksingers wrote songs specifically about the various issues that arose in elections (“The Draft-Dodger Rag,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” CSNY’s “Ohio,” “National Brotherhood Week”). That song trend was satirized in Tom Lehrer’s “The Folk Song Army” and is rarely seen these days, except perhaps on open mic nights at local bars and coffee shops. The day of protest songs sung by thousands at rallies or played on the radio has largely given way to the shouting or chanting of slogans (“Feel the Bern”) or general feel-good patriotic pop or country-pop songs. “God Bless the U.S.A.” might just replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. (It is easier to sing.)

God, I miss Woody Guthrie! I bet he’d have a thing or two to sing about this election cycle.

By the way, what do you suggest? Let me know what you think would be a good campaign song – for either side.