In the most recent essay for his new “On Democracy” series, Bill Moyers picks up on the news that the George Kaiser Family Foundation has acquired the Woody Guthrie Archives for 3 million dollars. Plans to open a new center in Tulsa are already underway. Woody’s papers, drawings and things will be returning to Oklahoma. The irony is not lost on Moyers:
What he wrote and sang about caused the oil potentates and preachers who ran Oklahoma to consider him radical and disreputable. For many years he was the state’s prodigal son, but times change, and that’s the big news. Woody Guthrie has been rediscovered, even though Oklahoma’s more conservative than ever – one of the reddest of our red states with a governor who’s a favorite of the Tea Party.
Times change, and the scene may change; the cast of characters remains essentially the same: in our film the Oklahoma oil barons and their patsy preachers play the parts of Michigan mining captains, Boston stockholders and the thugs they hire to do their dirty work.
Woody saw right through their change of costume. He knew that the man who robs you with a six-gun is likely to be more honest than the man who uses a fountain pen. In Oklahoma, in Michigan, in California, all around the country, he sang about the beauty of ordinary people whose undoing he witnessed. And the simple message at the heart of his songs is just as radical today as it ever was.
You just have to listen.
Moyers discovers it in This Land Is Your Land:
This land is mostly owned not by you and me but by the winner-take-all super rich who have bought up open spaces, built mega-mansions, turned vast acres into private vistas, and distanced themselves as far as they can from the common lot of working people – the people Woody wrote and sang about.
So in the video essay he produced about Woody Guthrie and the prospects for democracy in America now, Moyers might as well be describing Calumet in 1913 or Tom Joad’s California: “gross inequality,” he says, is “destroying us from within”. The question is what we’re going to do about it, this time.