‘This machine kills fascists.’
So clever. How did you think of that?
‘There’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done’. Bob Dylan said that about you.
I was only a kid when you died in 1967 – just eighteen years old and you were fifty five. But I was already besotted with a lot of your work. I had a whole bunch of your records that I played incessantly. That was the year that I bought your autobiography Bound For Glory.
We couldn’t have been much more different could we? – Separated by the best part of forty years, an ocean and a world of experience.
You were born in Okema Oklahoma and I was born in Surrey England. We did not have wide open plains, tornados, Indian reservations, black slaves or rattle snakes in Walton on Thames. We did not have guns, dust storms or dusty old hobos who rode the blinds. There were no lynchings, shootings or crooked Southern politicians who solved problems with their fists, or bosses who employed vigilantes to get their own way. Walton was very provincial and English. Yet Woody – your songs still spoke to me. You painted the pictures in my mind. I lived it through you.
My family was pretty ordinary too. None of them were burnt to death, or died of madness or ran for office. My father wasn’t involved in assassinating black people, or dubious property deals and he did not join the Ku Klux Klan.
Our worlds could not have been more different could they? But I could still relate to what you said.
You were a one off.
What made you that way Woody? You went against the grain.
How come you were brought up in a prosperous conservative family, full of racism and violence, and you developed the mind-set you had? Where did you get your sensibilities from?
What made you so special?
You took up the guitar and set about entertaining people with your songs. You busked around the country, painted signs, carried out odd-jobs, and even ran a radio show.
You rambled, lived rough and rode the trains with the poor, the down-and-outs and blacks, tramped round the country, playing to the strikers and disenfranchised, and you believed in a better world.
What made you such an optimist?
How come you weren’t a racist like all the others? Where did that compassion come from? What made you believe in fairness? It seems to me that there was something special inside you. You couldn’t simply ignore what was going on around you. You were forced to do something about it and fight for what you believed. You seemed to believe it more strongly than anybody else.
It seems to me that you kept your vision simple. You believed in justice, freedom and equality. The rest followed on from there. You were a communist and pluralist because of equality. You took people as you found them regardless of the colour of their skin. Back then both those beliefs were dangerous. But they didn’t faze you, did they Woody? Where-ever there was injustice you were the first to speak up, to write songs and join the picket line. You weren’t intimidated. You fought racism and championed the underdog. You were a union man because you saw that as the only way to put a stop to the exploitation of working people.
Woody – you were a one-man political organisation, a social dynamo, a fearless radical. Compromise was not in your language, was it?
You did not court popularity did you?
You took up social issues, like the dust bowl refugees, and put forward their case for justice.
The compassion and fury poured forth from your guitar.
You loved life, nature and women. You were never happier than when outside, under the sky, with the sun, stars and mountains. I could feel that in your songs – particularly This Land Is Your Land.
But you also had a dream. You could see a better world a coming. You saw science providing the answers. Electricity from the hydroelectric would turn deserts into fertile land. There would be a land of plenty in which all men and women would prosper.
All we had to do was defeat fascism.
Which brings me back to that slogan – this machine kills fascists.
It taught me a valuable lesson. You don’t defeat fascism, hatred and exploitation with violence. You defeat it with love, reason and music. A guitar is a machine that can reach into peoples’ hearts and change them. A guitar is better than a rifle. Songs are better than bullets. Words can kill fascism. Ideas hold great power. Your words still move me. You put poetry and idealism into song. It still has impact decades on.
We might have been born worlds apart but I’m joined to you like I was your twin.
I just wanted to say thank you Woody.