Woody Guthrie & Unions Amen!

by Thomas Conner


Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers.

– Isaiah 58: 3

Our song is our meeting and our music is our union. Yes. It is so. It is true.

– Woody Guthrie

On February 24, amid weeks of protest in and around Wisconsin’s state capitol over Gov. Scott Walker’s bill stripping unions of their right to collective bargaining—their most basic reason for existing— members of several unions joined a conference call with regional religious leaders, urging support from people of faith for the workers’ struggle. “The future of the common good is at stake,” warned one union president, according to a report in The Progressive Christian magazine. An Ohio pastor agreed: “There’s always a danger that workers will be oppressed if there aren’t safeguards in place to assure they have a place at the table. It is crucial in 2011 for people of faith to stand with labor, because if we don’t, some fundamental rights and values will be under assault. Our faith traditions stand for human dignity, and so do unions.”

Can I get an amen?

Abby Wendle shares the story of the men who worked to identify the 28 Mexican deportees who died in a plane crash in 1948:

Fairness, equal opportunity, charity, justice—these are more than mere matters of government policy, they are indeed “fundamental rights and values.” Labor rights are supported by the doctrines of every major American denomination, from the Presbyterians’ “Principles of Vocation and Work” to the “Workplace Fairness Resolution” from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Catholics have a lengthy tradition in the workplace; as recently as May 2010 the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice published a position paper titled “Union Busting Is a Mortal Sin,” which says, “Since the right to form labor unions is rooted in the Divine Law, no created law may be invoked to deny, or frustrate, or impede that right.”

Why don’t we hear the left wielding language like that on cable news? We’re facing a long haul through difficult economic times—and the wealthiest 1 percent no doubt will continue employing its shock doctrine to further degrade the power of labor in the name of prudence and frugality— but American unions have lost the skill or the will to frame their argument in the debate as a moral mandate with the same religious fervor of the right.

But there’s precedent on our side. Try this on for size: “Every single human being is looking for a better way … when there shall be no want among you … when the Rich will give their goods into [sic] the poor. I believe in this Way. I just can’t believe in any other Way. This is the Christian Way and it is already on a big part of the earth and it will come. To own everything in Common. That’s what the bible says. Common means all of us. This is pure old Commonism.”

That’s from Woody Guthrie—an unofficial leftist saint, a man who saw no fundamental distinction between the writings of Marx and the teachings of Jesus, a writer and folk singer who thought of social programs and caring for “the least among you” as not only basic common sense but as the same sharing of resources called for in the Bible. In his many essays and songs, he gave rich people hell, chastising them for being Christian hypocrites as millions of poor suffered and wandered. It’s a world view that’s very Woody and— once upon a time, anyway—utterly Oklahoman.


“They say they are ‘religious,’ say they’re ‘Christians,’ say they’re ‘good’,” Woody wrote in an essay inside the songbook Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (compiled in 1940 but not published until 1962). “These big greedy Rich Men ain’t no more Christians than the Man in the Moon.” He wraps it up, saying, “For God’s sake, man, get on the side of the Poor Folks.”

Woody—yes, that nefarious atheist commie Woody Guthrie—idealized Jesus Christ and frequently utilized his story as inspiration for working people. The essence of Christ’s moral code, Woody believed, was the basis of what we today call socialism. In his autobiographical novel Bound for Glory, he tried to explain:

That’s what “social” means, me and you and you working on something together and owning it together. What the hell’s wrong with this, anybody—speak up! If Jesus Christ was sitting right here, right now, he’d say this very same damn thing. You just ask Jesus how the hell come a couple of thousand of us living out here in this jungle camp like a bunch of wild animals. You just ask Jesus how many millions of other folks are living the same way? Sharecroppers down South, big city people that work in factories and live like rats in the dirty slums. You know what Jesus’ll say back to you? He’ll tell you we all just mortally got to work together, build things together, fix up old things together, clean out old filth together, put up new buildings, schools and churches, banks and factories together, and own everything together. Sure, they’ll call it a bad ism. Jesus don’t care if you call it socialism or communism, or just me and you.

During his Depression-era wanderings, Woody met displaced people who were denied basic services. He witnessed a lack of charity that ran contrary to one of Jesus’ principle teachings—“Whatever you did not do for one of the last of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 41- 45)—and one day, he recalls in an autobiographical essay, “About Woody,” he experienced it himself while begging for food and shelter in Tucson, Ariz. A priest responded to him: “’Sorry, Son, but we’re livin’ on charity our selves, there’s nothing here for you.’ I looked up at the cathedral, every single rock in it cost ten dollars to lay and ten to chop out, and I thought, Boy, you’re right there’s nothing here for me.”

Woody thereafter abandoned organized religion as just another arena for class conflict, but he held on to Jesus as an icon for the company he kept— the meek that allegedly were to inherit the earth. By early 1940, Woody had relocated to New York City, where he flopped in a midtown flophouse and wrote two of his best songs—the two that most eloquently sum up his Christian philosophy. The first was an exercise in exorcism. Woody wrote “God Blessed America,” later changing the title to “This Land Was Made for You and Me,” as a response to Irving Berlin’s hit celebration of reward and passivity, “God Bless America.” As Joe Klein wrote in his biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, “No piece of music had bothered him so much since ‘This World Is Not My Home,’ although Bing Crosby’s narcotic, lay-down-and-die version of ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, and Dream Your Troubles Away’ had come close. ‘God Bless America,’ indeed—it was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver’s seat.” God had already blessed America, Woody believed—made it for you and me—and argued that it’s our duty as working people to maintain that blessing.

The other song written in that room gets more to his point: “Jesus Christ Was a Man.” Decades before Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew or Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Woody addresses Jesus less as a deity and more as a man, specifically a worker (“a carpenter true and brave”) who championed the rights of the common people and was betrayed by the political elite:

When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around
believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross
and they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.


The concept driving Woody’s idea of Jesus’ love was togetherness, community, cooperation—union. His union was a broad ideal, a brotherhood of men that stretched far beyond mere wages and workplace benefits. Woody explained this as common sense, a foregone conclusion in his introduction to the Hard Hitting Songs chapter titled “One Big Union”: “Most Folks believe in Union. They believe in One Big Union. Preachers preach it, screechers screech it, Talkers talk it, Singers sing it. One Big Union has got to come. You believe in it. I know you do. You believe in it because the bible says You’ll all be One in the Father. That is as High as Religion goes.”

A book that most effectively illuminated for me Woody and his loftier ideas is one that never mentions him: Jim Bissett’s Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. Bissett’s thorough study—I can’t recommend it highly enough, still available from the University of Oklahoma Press—plumbs the origins and consequences of basic facts likely known to This Land readers: that the state briefly boasted the nation’s largest number of registered socialist voters. Bissett also deftly illustrates how Oklahomans put a unique spin on socialism, infusing it with religion. “Jesus was celebrated as a great socialist hero,” Bisset writes, quoting prayers (“Permeate our souls with divine discontent and righteous rebellion”) and poems (“I think he is a fellow working man /A carpenter they say, from Galilee”) published in Oklahoma newspapers in the first decade of the 20th century. Only through socialism, one editorial insisted, is it “possible for a man to do unto others as he would have them do unto him, as taught by the Carpenter.” Another editor, shortly after Woody was born, insisted “the ethics of Socialism and the ethics of Christianity are identical.” “Here,” Bissett says of Oklahoma, “the theology of fundamentalism meshed seamlessly with the politics of Marxism.”

No doubt Woody tuned into some of this as he grew up in Okemah—a warble and a whisper from Seminole, the origin of the Green Corn Rebellion—then he began his exploration of universalist religion after moving to the Texas panhandle after high school. It began as killing time in the Pampa library, voraciously reading everything from psychology textbooks (he actually wrote his own; the library even shelved and catalogued it but later threw it out) and faith-healing guides to Omar Khayyam and repeatedly Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (“All work is empty save when there is love; and when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God”). He meditated, practiced yoga. He began signing letters as “The Soul Doctor” and even saw patients as a faith healer, printing up business cards for himself advertising “Divine Healing and Consultation.” In Okemah his family sometimes had attended the First Methodist Church; in Pampa, Woody visited tent revivals and eventually was baptized in the Church of Christ (oddly, a denomination that frowned on musical instruments). Biographer Ed Cray mentions that “a youthful Guthrie had once toyed with the idea of converting to Catholicism and even taking orders.”

We shouldn’t make too much of these particulars— Woody was drawn to ideas, not organizations, though he did once cite his library auto didacticism as credentials (“I studied religion 6 years”)—but we can draw a fairly clear line between these early explorations and his eventual concept, shared more pragmatically by the Industrial Workers of the World, of “one big union.” By the mid-’30s, about the same time he finally recorded “This Land” and “Jesus Christ,” Woody scribbled in his notebook, “The best religion I ever felt or ever seen is world union. The highest step in any religion is your joining up with the union of every mind and hand in the world.”

Later, as he focused his thoughts during long hours at sea during WWII, he tried out one verse of his own hymn, “Union’s My Religion”:

I just now heard a salty seaman
On this deep and dangerous sea;
Talking to some Army chaplain
That had preached to set him free:
“When I seen my union vision
Then I made my quick decision;
Yes, that union’s my religion;
That I know.”
(And that I know)


Protest songs still reverberate inside the Wisconsin state capitol. That’s not just me being dramatic. The rallies and sit-ins occurred in February and into early March, yet despite the bill’s passage (and mid-June approval in the Wisconsin Supreme Court) angry Wisconsin workers are still meeting every weekday at noon in the capitol’s rotunda. They organize via the Solidarity Sing-Along page on Facebook. They stand in a circle, on the marble floor and in front of massive marble pillars, and they sing.

The songs they sing—mostly from the Solidarity Sing- Along Songbook compiled by the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice—are rousing unions songs, many of which are reupholstered hymns and religious songs— “We Shall Not Be Moved” was written as “I Shall Not Be Moved,” a spiritual, as was “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round” (originally “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ’Round”). “Solidarity Forever” is just new words on an old tune, the same tune as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”— “Glory, glory, hallelujah!”

The songbook includes Woody, too: “I’m Stickin’ to the Union” (aka “Union Maid,” written in Oklahoma City) and the requisite “This Land.” The Solidarity Sing-Along version of the latter Woody tune tweaks the words to be more inspiring to cheeseheads: “From Lake Geneva to Madeline Island / from the rolling prairies to our lovely dairies / Wisconsin was made for you and me!”

Woody would love that. (Watch the Raging Grannies sing it on YouTube!) He’d love the punks, too, many of whom—Tom Morello from the band Rage Against the Machine, Wayne Kramer from the MC5, Tim McIlrath from Rise Against and others—gathered in the frigid cold on Feb. 21 to inspire Madison’s marchers with fiery songs of discontent, including Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power in a Union.” They closed, of course, with “This Land.” The crowd held hands, singing it like a hymn. Later, when I spoke with McIlrath, he told me something else Woody would love—and union reps should strive for: “Everybody was singing and somehow all together. It was like a religious experience.”