Concert Review- Woody Guthrie “The Road to Peekskill.”

Congress House 18th March with Will Kaufman.

The downstairs hall at TUC’s Congress House was packed on 18th March with this special concert organised by South East Region TUC to pay tribute to the legendary US Communist folk troubadour Woody Guthrie. The songs were performed by Will Kaufman US born professor of American Literature at the University of Central Lancashire, England and author of an acclaimed book on Woody “Woody Guthrie, American Radical.”

Will’s own singing voice suits his subject matter well starting off with Woody’s most famous song “This Land is Your Land”. But this was not just a rehash of the most famous and most covered songs Woody recorded. For this was also a voyage, using talk and film, through Woody’s political development culminating in a song he wrote about the famous Peekskill concert in 1949. Woody came from a Southern racist family with a father who was possibly a member of the Klu Klux Klan and who may or may not have participated in a notorious lynching. Early on in his singing career Woody thought nothing of singing racist songs on radio shows until challenged by a letter from a young African-American man. Coming alongside his growing interest in the labour movement and his friendship with Blues singer Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly), his attitudes shifted radically. Another close friend was the Communist actor Will Geer, later Grandpa Walton in “The Waltons.”

The song “Deportees (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)” performed by Will was about a terrible plane crash killing Mexican farm labourers who the news stories described as being “just deportees”. The song has been covered by numerous artists including Dolly Parton and reflected Woody’s growing anger at injustice and racism.

The events at Peekskill took place in September 1949. There were two attempts to stage a concert with Paul Robeson at the town of Peekskill. The first was broken up by fascists assisted by the police. At the second Robeson managed to sing along with Pete Seeger but the attendees were attacked by fascist thugs as they came out. US author Howard Fast (Spartacus, Freedom Road)” was to comment “This is the Voice of Fascism not in Nazi Germany but here in America”. The chants shouted by the crowd aimed at black people and Jews would definitely bear this out. As SERTUC secretary Megan Dobney pointed out it was this concert where our comrade Mikki Doyle (later Women’s editor of the Morning star was blinded in one eye).

Although Will Kaufman identifies more with the anarcho-syndicalist IWW tradition he was happy to pay respect to the role US communists played in fighting racism and fascism in that period.  The concert ended with a plug for the “Stand UP to Racism” demonstration on 21st March with a performance of the song “All you Fascists are Bound to Lose” and then an encore of a recent song about Woody by Steve Earle “Christmas Time in Washington.” This was a great celebration of music and politics and a reminder how much Woody has inspired so many artists in both song and support for progressive politics.

Steven Johnson

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