Tomorrow is Bastille Day, when the French commemorate the start of the first French Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and aristocracy and unleashed the then revolutionary the ideas, later enshrined as the French national motto, of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The French Revolution also produced what is probably the best national anthem in the world, the Marseillaise. But tomorrow isn’t just an important anniversary for the French. It’s also the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of America’s great radicals, and the writer of our greatest national song, Woody Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie is always relevant to our national discussions, because there will always be people being ground down by want and struggle and insecurity, denied the full rights and dignity deserved by all Americans, without the time or means or opportunities to fully pursue happiness. Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the creator of the Woody Guthrie Archive, describes her father as “the last of the great European troubadours and first singer-songwriter punk rocker” and “calls him ‘a commonist, not a communist’, who ‘wanted to be involved in government to change things, not to overthrow it’, and believed in government in a way that would infuriate the American right today.”
I think about Woody Guthrie often, but I’ve been thinking about him more often than usual as I hear about the 99% vs the 1%, watch the increasingly virulent attacks on unions, and see the Republicans’ increasingly frantic war on voting. Republican strategists know that they’re fighting a losing battle with time and demography. Their base in getting older and more reactionary. To mollify their core voters they have to espouse public policies and social and cultural views that are anathema to the younger voters and racial minorities who make up an ever-increasing share of the national electorate and could be the foundation of decades of Democratic dominance. Savvy Republicans don’t appear to have a long-term strategy. But to prevail in November, Republicans know they will not only have to wring out every vote from their increasingly elderly base, they’ll also have to suppress as many Democratic votes as possible.
If Woody were alive today, he’d probably discuss the war on voting by telling his one of his favorite stories:
I been a member of nine jillion different unions. We didn’t have no big newspapers or radio stations to tell our side of the story. We didn’t have no judges and no police force. But we had people.
I guess the first time I ever heard about a union, I wasn’t more than eight years old. What I heard was the story of the two rabbits. It was a he rabbit and a she rabbit that a pack of hounds was chasing all over the countryside, and finally these rabbits they holed up inside a hollow log. Outside the dogs was a-howling. The he rabbit turned to the she rabbit and he said, What do we do now? And the she rabbit, shejust give him a wink and said — We stay here til we outnumber them.
To continue creating the country we want, to live up to our ideals and dreams, we have to work, we have to struggle, we have to fight, and we have to win. But at the core of Woody Guthrie’s greatness was the awareness that we have to stand in solidarity, that we have to have some mirth and humor, and that we have to love. We have to fight the forces of reaction, but to prevail over the forces of reaction, we have to love…’til we outnumber them.