Woody Guthrie's Birthday and the War on Cynicism

July 13, 2012 | 10:04 am
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

In our fight for a better quality of life for all Americans, we need storytellers. We need to reach people through personal anecdotes, through editorial cartoons, through songs. We need to arm people with narratives of what is possible, so that together we may be successful in spurning the cynicism that supports the status quo and disillusions the disempowered. And few have done this better than the man who would have turned 100 years old tomorrow: songwriter and American folk hero Woody Guthrie.

But what do Woody’s writings have to do with science? As it turns out, plenty.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. Photo: NOAA/George E. Marsh

While Woody is best known for his musical contributions, he also produced a few notable works of literature. Woody personally witnessed the agricultural devastation of the Depression-era Dust Bowl as a young man, and looked to it for creative nourishment. His novel House of Earth, written in 1947 but not yet published, details a poor couple’s struggle against changes in the local climactic and economic forces that stymied their ability to adapt to those changes.

Several man-made factors contributed to the Dust Bowl, including the deep plowing of topsoil that destabilized the grasses that held the dirt in place. The storms were centered in Oklahoma and West Texas and were strong enough to blow dirt as far as the East Coast. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless, and 2.5 million left the Plains during the latter half of the 1930s.

House of Earth centers around the Tikes, a farming couple in West Texas (Woody likely chose the name Tike to symbolize his often-referenced “little guy” in society). The two become fed up with the devastating dust storms but soon find opportunity in the sturdiness and security of adobe housing. The couple’s attempts to construct their own adobe home are subsequently met with staunch opposition by the bank that owns their land and home and has financial ties to the lumber industry. While the government promotes the use of adaptation technology in the form of adobe housing to better protect people from the ravages of the environment, the business community stands in the way. Those who had power tried to exact as much as possible from those who did not.

a man makes adobe bricks

A man makes adobe bricks. In Woody Guthrie’s novel, a farming couple is prevented from building a sturdier adobe house by the bank that owns their land–and has ties to timber companies. Photo: Library of Congress

But Guthrie’s characters do not turn the other cheek and forfeit their home’s security to the prosperity of the financial establishment. Mr. Tike speaks not only against the callous banks, but also against other hard working poor folks who are letting the banks get away with it. Ultimately, he calls out his peers for giving in to their own disillusionment.

And that’s a big obstacle to our ability to get things done today: cynicism. British singer Billy Bragg, who has been re-popularizing many of Woody’s lesser known songs, puts it this way:

“Cynicism is our great enemy. If we, coming together, can’t overcome our cynicism, then there really is no hope. We might as well pack up and go home. I’m fortunate: I get to stand with a thousand people every couple of weeks, and when I talk about my anger or my politics, everyone cheers. And I come away thinking, ‘Yeah! I’m not the only one who feels this.'”

Those who have power today use cynicism create a toxic environment that makes change less possible. We hear from politicians that we should not cut our global warming emissions until China and India do the same. We see developers convincing legislators to stick their heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge sea level rise. We hear that FDA scientific advisory committees have to be constituted by those with financial ties to drug companies. We hear that endangered species advocates and landowners will never be able to compromise. Elected officials shake their head at the idea that we can grow the economy and protect the public and the environment at the same time.

The biggest danger, however, comes from the resignation within ourselves. We see that the change we want happening too slowly–or not at all–and we give up. We begin to see all politicians, government officials, and business leaders as the same. We hesitate. We pull back. Nobody wants to be a sucker.

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie. Photo: Library of Congress

That’s not good enough. We have no choice but to engage, to fight for what we believe in, to work tirelessly to restore science to its rightful place in society. Because when we throw up our hands, we lose.

We get this message from both Woody’s prose and his songs. But the songs are what really created social change. They are revolutionary because they move people to action.

While each verse told a story, Woody demanded that the listener understand the influences that fell upon him or her and the opportunities for freedom he or she could pursue. He could funnel an entire generation’s challenges into a short and compelling folk song. No studio, no computer. Just a man’s bare fingers on six strings and a gift for the written word.

Happy Birthday, Woody. Thanks for the inspiration, and for the kick in the pants.