Harsh social realities can be overcome if we work together

"Nobody livin' can ever stop us, as we go walkin' that freedom highway."

— Woody Guthrie, from "This Land is Your Land."

The all-American troubadour, poet and protest singer Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie is familiar to many because of his song "This Land is Your Land." He was born on July 14, 1912, and came of age musically and politically in the radicalizing Dust Bowl years.

Depression-era social realities of inequality, foreclosures, poverty, war, racism, fascism, environmental destruction, hunger, unemployment and the exploitation of working folk informed and inspired his prolific creative output.

The threats against (and hopes for) human decency compelled the urgency in his writing. He wrote more than 3,000 songs in his short career.

By 1952, at age 40, the ravages of Huntington's disease were diminishing his output, and it killed him in 1967.

Woody's continuing relevance is a testimony to his genius. He deserves to be celebrated. But his relevance also is profoundly troubling: The problems that drove his work still haunt and torment us.

We have not achieved Woody's "freedom highway" where the scourges of poverty, hunger, exploitation, racism, tyranny and war are defeated.

We now live in the age that portends another Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

Environmental problems threaten our future. Inequality of wealth, income and power worsen and undermine possibilities for meaningful democracy and humanized solidarity, two forces at the core of Woody's politics. Global wars and militarism, led by U.S. power, brutalize and destroy while throwing a dark cloud over our future.

Additionally, the exploitation of workers since 1980 has intensified: Pensions are taken away, unions are attacked and wages are declining as worker productivity and hours of labor increase. And racism is evident in our prison populations, growing slums and collapsing inner-city schools, etc.

The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 50 percent of people in the U.S. live in or near poverty. Meanwhile, corporations and big banks make record profits. In his song "I Ain't Got No Home," Woody sang about the crazy world where "the bankin' man is rich, and the workin' folks is poor." It's crazy still.

Social inequities pressed Woody to ask "Is this land made for you and me?" The question remains relevant in this time of growing poverty, collapsing infrastructure, bought and sold politics, ongoing wars and occupations, and the transfer of wealth and power to the already rich and privileged. Then there is the question of what to do about it.

Woody dedicated his work to denouncing injustice, indignity and inequality, while also announcing the possibilities for a better world. That might be his most important lesson: We must work to understand the world and use that understanding to work and struggle to create a better world.

Woody abides because he wrote honest songs about harsh social realities but would not sing songs that made people feel they were hopeless or helpless.

He worked to write songs that proved that this world is our world, and we can collectively work in meaningful and productive ways to make it better for all.

A Woody Guthrie Celebration and Sing-Along will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the YAM Theater, 219 Main Street, Portales. Admission is $5.

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