Two days ago marked what would have been the centennial birthday of iconic folk artist Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), perhaps best known today for his classic “This Land is Your Land.” His biography is a fascinating (and short) read and provides some context for the scathing social commentary in many of his 100+ songs. Much of his music is raw, simple, and emotionally charged – just a man and his guitar. But it was also forged in his own contentious politics and experiences traveling the country in the 1930s – a time when economic and environmental disasters (the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, respectively) ravaged the country making breadlines, Hoovervilles, and civic unrest easier to find than a decent job. Guthrie’s music may reflect that era but many of his songs, especially the anthems he wrote in support of the labor movement and other protest music, remain well-recognized and relevant today.
As sociologist William F. Danaher (2010) shows, music can be a key component of social movements that “[provide] a means for solidarity around shared causes and resistance from those who prefer the status quo.” Danaher reviews the literature and identifies four ways that music may aid a movement: fostering collective identity, staking out space (which may be physical or social), invoking emotion, and acting as a cultural resource. For brevity’s sake I focus only on the first two, but encourage readers to look through the article. Nevertheless, taking a closer look at just a few of the songs in Guthrie’s catalog lends support not only to Danaher’s argument but also Guthrie’s legacy as a musician and activist.