“Documentary #1: Struggle” by Woody Guthrie - album review

features in: Album Chart of 1945Album Chart of the Decade: 1940s

TJR says

The set features 3 songs from the marathon sessions of April 1944 as well as 3 songs newly recorded in May 1945; “Buffalo Skinners”, “1913 Massacre” and “Ludlow Massacre”, which are the best of the bunch. Moe Asch is on record as saying that this album was issued in 1946 but, as is often the case with albums that are so old, such information has been muddy and contradictory over the years, even from expert historians. I plump for 1945 on the grounds that, in a letter dated 6th December 1945, Woody wrote to his would-be lover, Charlotte Strauss, and proudly talked of “a new album of my own [that] came out a couple of weeks back. It is on Asch Records. The name of it is Struggle and the songs are based mainly on actual scenes out of our struggle to build on trade unions.”

In their regular project chit-chats, Moe Asch had told Woody of his plans to publish a “singing newspaper” which came to be known as his “American Documentary” series. “Struggle” would be the first in the series and Woody got straight to work on writing a series on labour martyrs. He had recently read a book by labour activist Mother Bloor (Ella Reeve Bloor, 1862–1951) called “We Are Many”. It recounted the tragic story of a Christmas party held for a group of striking mine workers in Michigan. Copper mining had become big business in Michigan, drawing workers into the state. Many joined the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies. The WFM separated from the Wobblies and went on strike against the Michigan mines. Intent on discouragement at every turn, the intimidatory tactics employed by the hired company thugs were despicable; unspeakably evil deeds. The incident eye witnessed and described by Bloor and retold in Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre” happened on Christmas Eve, 1913. During the party, these thugs were milling outside. One of them yelled, “Fire!” and locked the doors. 73 folks, 59 of whom were only children, were trampled to death trying to escape.

Elsewhere, “Ludlow Massacre” tells another true story, this time from the 1913–14 Colorado Coal Strike. The United Mine Workers of America struck against the large coal companies in Colorado. On 20th April 1914, 12,000 striking miners living in a tent city were attacked by the Colorado National Guard. During a party to celebrate Greek Easter, twenty-one people—including women and children—perished. The mostly immigrant workers were being paid an average daily wage of $1.60. The Ludlow Tent Colony Site where these miners lived is now a National Historic Landmark. Moe Asch was an innovator in the use of cover art on his records, and the “Struggle” album featured a beautiful illustration by David Stone Martin which depicted the burial at Ludlow.

These acts were amongst the most violent in the age old struggle between corporate power and labouring men. The poor folks lost, as they usually do. These are the stories which the authorities try to sweep under the carpet; to limit the damage done by means of spin, but Woody’s straight talking prosecutes these brutes with no histrionics. The great thing about a singing newspaper is that can be “re-read” by successive generations – and thanks to Woody (and Moe) these matters of great national import stay remembered well into the 21st century.

The Jukebox Rebel

A [03:18] 9.6.png Woody Guthrie - Buffalo Skinners (Traditional) Folk
B [03:01] 7.9.png Woody Guthrie - Pretty Boy Floyd [1944 version] (Woody Guthrie) Folk
C [03:38] 10.0.png Woody Guthrie - 1913 Massacre (Woody Guthrie) Folk
D [03:30] 9.8.png Woody Guthrie - Ludlow Massacre (Woody Guthrie) Folk
E [03:08] 7.5.png Woody Guthrie - Union Burying Ground (Woody Guthrie) Folk
F [02:51] 8.7.png Sonny Terry and Woody Guthrie - Lost John (Traditional, Sonny Terry) Folk

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