September-October 2016

HOW DID WOODY GUTHRIE WIND UP

IN A STORY ABOUT DONALD TRUMP?

By Ross Altman, PhD

no-vacanciesHow did Woody Guthrie wind up in a story about Donald Trump? The LA Times put him there—today (Aug. 15) as a matter of fact. It seems that Woody rented an apartment in Brooklyn from Trump’s old man Fred Trump, an apartment with the enticing name of Beach Haven. Woody called it “Bitch Haven.” The Times quoted Woody’s reworked Dust Bowl ballad I Ain’t Got No Home, written in reaction to the racist rental policies of Trump’s father—which prompted a major lawsuit by black families of the time—who would go to the complex thinking they had an equal opportunity to rent there, only to be told that none were available. Trouble was they had just been told on the phone that there were vacancies; only when their black faces were seen did the No Vacancy sign make its appearance. Woody, who began renting there in December, 1950, two years before he first displayed symptoms of Huntington’s Chorea, naturally took the side of families on the other side of Old Man Trump’s color line:

We are all crazy fools

As long as race hate rules!

No no no! Old Man Trump!

Beach Haven ain’t my home!

Beach Haven ain't my home!

I just cain't pay this rent!

My money's down the drain!

And my soul is badly bent!

Beach Haven looks like heaven

Where no black ones come to roam!

No, no, no! Old Man Trump!

Old Beach Haven ain't my home!

Will Kaufman, author of Woody Guthrie: American Radical, wrote a more Guthrie-centered account of the rental policies and practices of Donald Trump’s father, and what he called “a Real Estate Empire’s Racist Foundations,” which is available to read for free on-line.

But you get the gist of it here, and now that Woody is in Donald Trump’s story, I plan to leave him here to see what further trouble he can make. After all, he’s the poet laureate of protest folk who once wrote: “When the fight gets hot, the songs get hotter.” The fight in this election campaign is about as hot as I’ve seen it, and you know that were he alive today he’d have something to contribute to it. Woody, however, will have to wait his turn. I have other fish to fry.

Some of my favorite quotes from American Transcendentalist writers have come back to haunt me in recent days. “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the same spirit Whitman wrote “I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.” George Orwell’s totalitarian satire 1984 created an entire language he called Newspeak based on such principles: “Freedom is Slavery;” “War is Peace,” and my favorite: “Ignorance is Strength.”

Coming from Whitman and Emerson—whose overall goodwill one could take for granted—it means one thing; coming from Big Brother—the symbol of the state in 1984—it means quite another. Alarm bells went off in many corners when Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to abolish the 2nd Amendment, and then said that if she is elected, and gets to pick her judges for the Supreme Court, “Nothing you can do, folks; though the 2nd Amendment people, maybe there is; I don’t know.”

Within an hour the Secret Service had drawn the obvious threatening conclusion from what President Reagan’s daughter described as “shocking and horrifying language,” given that her own father had been the target of an assassination attempt of a deranged gunman. The Secret Service let the world know that “The Secret Service is aware of the language spoken at a rally this afternoon”—an unprecedented insertion of their own prestige into a national political campaign. They felt they had no choice given that the candidates’ safety is their responsibility.

Also within minutes of the Republican nominee’s thinly veiled threat to the life of his opponent his own campaign’s spin doctors were engaged in what is politely called “walking it back.” “Trump didn’t mean what everyone thinks he meant—he meant rather that the NRA and other supporters of the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms would fight back with “political unity,” that’s all. Like Whitman and Emerson, Trump refuses to be hemmed in by the literal meaning of anything he says—he appeals to what New Critics William Empson once called “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” Cleanth Brooks in the Well Wrought Urn called “The Language of Paradox,” R.P. Blackmur called “Language as Gesture,” and Kenneth Burke called “Perspective by Incongruity.” They all resisted, as does Donald Trump, what Brooks’ in his last chapter called “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”

Woody Guthrie 2-sm

Apropos of the phrase “the 2nd Amendment people, maybe there is; I don’t know,” Brooks effectively points out why that deranged would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr., who was released into his 90-year old mother’s custody after his last hearing from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital where he has been kept in a locked ward since 1981 after being found “Not Guilty by reason of insanity,” might interpret it as a private signal between himself and the candidate: “It is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations. And I do not mean that the connotations are important as supplying some sort of frill or trimming, something external to the real matter in hand. I mean that the poet does not use a notation at all—as the science may be properly be said to do so. The poet, within limits, has to make his language as he goes.” This was written in 1947, about poet John Keats, not Hinckley, but it could have been written today, about Trump. As someone trained in these literary disciplines during the heyday of the New Criticism—which began with poet/critic John Crowe Ransom’s book by the same name—it is demoralizing to see how such illuminating and far-reaching ideas as applied to literary creations could be hijacked for malevolent political purposes by a candidate who is functionally illiterate. As evidence of that, he clearly does not even know what the word “plagiarism” means, or he would have protected his wife from relying on it and then lamely defending it in the aftermath of her plagiarized speech from First Lady Michelle Obama during the RNC Convention. American politics, and the language of politics, has descended to a level even Orwell could not have imagined.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a piece entitled “Wink Wink 2nd Amendment People” on August 9, “is how Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin got assassinated.” That is also, by my reckoning, where the straightforward lessons of folk singer Woody Guthrie now come in handy. In an essay nominally in praise of the Good Grey Poet Walt Whitman, Woody comes to realize that he—in a lovely phrase—must “steer clear of Whitman’s swimmy waters.” He means Whitman’s free verse, because Woody has a similar propensity to let one metaphor lead to another without end, and to lose focus on what he wanted to say. He comes to praise the restrictions of songwriting, of the limitations imposed by a rhyme scheme, to help impose order and clear-mindedness on one’s thoughts. It’s a beautiful essay published the year he died 49 years ago on October 3, 1967. Thus he both praises Whitman and reaches the conclusion that his style of poetry is not for him. In fin, Woody’s approach is a brief for clear thinking, and saying what you mean. Poetry as such must take a back seat to what Emerson happily described as “a meter-making argument;” no wink winks allowed.

Modern English poet W.H. Auden was on Woody and Emerson’s side; he once wrote that “Nothing is beautiful—not even in poetry—that is not the case.” He didn’t just write that off the cuff—it justified the most agonizing decision about his own work that he must have made—to delete his most famous poem from his collected works, September 1, 1939, the one that ends with his most famous line: “We must love one another or die.”

That is the line Lyndon Johnson used to end his famous campaign ad from 1964—the race against Barry Goldwater. The ad was about nuclear weapons and based on the premise that Goldwater’s “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” may even reach to the willingness to employ the Bomb, which had come up during the campaign. LBJ’s ad showed a young girl picking petals from a daisy (“1, 2, 3, 4, 5”) to be met by a deep male voice overlapping with the visual of a mushroom-shaped cloud in the foreground saying “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then Johnson’s voice enters the script to utter Auden’s immortal line, “We must love one another or die.” The ad aired only once, but may have cost Goldwater the election, by raising the specter of nuclear war were he to be elected.

The ad is still relevant today, given that we now have a Republican nominee who has (for once) unambiguously stated his position on nuclear weapons: “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” Why indeed, when every Secretary of State since Dean Acheson has agreed with him that the only value of nuclear weapons is as a deterrent.

the-pooh-perplexTo Auden the issue was more personal: “We are going to die anyway,” he finally realized, and thus the line was indefensible in his own aesthetic: it could not be what ordinary minds believed it to be—beautiful—because it “was not the case.” All the major anthologies of modern poetry let it stand, and included Auden’s great poem about the beginning of World War II with the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, but Auden removed it from his own canon of Collected Poems. That is character.

Trump’s demagogic mangling of the English language—he most recently described Obama and Hillary Clinton as the “founders of ISIS”—also brings to mind my beloved Berkeley English professor Frederick C. Crews’ classic satire on modern literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex: “In Which It is Discovered that the True Meaning of the Pooh Stories is Not as Simple as is Usually Believed, But for Proper Elucidation Requires the Combined Efforts of Several Academicians of Varying Critical Persuasions.” For “Pooh Stories” substitute “Trump Speeches” and this too might have been written today.

Guthrie didn’t need to be set straight by Professor Crews. Unlike the academic poets trained in New Criticism, Woody by his own lights avoided its literary values of ambiguity, paradox, and irony and thus did not need to “walk back” his most memorable line, the one he attached to his own guitar during his service in the Merchant Marines and the US Navy during World War II. It’s the line he would have unhesitatingly spoken to the “2nd Amendment people” Donald Trump was speaking to and for when he threatened Hillary Clinton’s life at a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Said America’s greatest folk singer, who didn’t mince words and never walked it back: “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Ross Altman will perform on Sunday before Labor Day, September 4 at The Church in Ocean Park; 10:15am, 235 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405, his 35th annual appearance to celebrate the music and history of America’s working people. The program is free and open to the public; parking in the Church lot; 310-399-1631.

Saturday October 29 at 2:00pm at the Allendale Branch Library, 1130 S. Marengo Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 Ross Altman performs his show Ten Songs That Shook the World, originally presented at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 1999. 626-744-7260. Free and open to the public.

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton; Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  

All Columns by Ross Altman