Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

Bracero

Bracero

The Bracero programme ran from 1942 until 1964 and saw over four million contracts being issued allowing for Mexican migrant workers to work on North American farmlands, more often than not at wages and working conditions that local workers would deem unacceptable. In early 1942, in fear of a World War Two inspired labour shortfall, the State of California requested Government support by the way of temporary seasonal contracts for Mexican farm workers. Numbers were relatively small during the Wartime period, soon after the war ended however official Bracero workers were soon being outnumbered by illegal, so called “wetback”, workers.
According to Philip Martin in his book Promise Unfulfilled : Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers, 2003, into the 1950’s illegal workers continued to outnumber the Braceros. The weak response of Government suggests that such workers were a illegality they were willing to suffer.
During the period of the Bracero program, North American farmlands became amongst the most productive on earth. In the mid-Fifties, as the Government began the removal of illegal workers, regulations on working and living conditions were relaxed, a trend that would continue until the early Sixties when President Kennedy brought a beginning to an end to the Bracero program.
In 1964 when the program did come to an end to an end, Lee G. Williams, from the U.S. Department of Labor, described it as “organised slavery”.

The impression one is left with of the Bracero is of undignified desperation, workers treated more like cattle than humans. Prospective workers were forced to prove their agricultural work experience by showing calloused hands. Upon acceptance they were sprayed with DDT. It’s all rather bleak.

Pauline R. Kibbe, in her book Latin Americans in Texas, 1948, offers a flavour of how these workers were treated –

Generally speaking, the Latin American migratory worker going into Texas is regarded as a necessary evil, nothing more or less than an unavoidable adjunct to the harvest season. Judging by the treatment that has been accorded him in that section of the state, one might assume that he is not a human being at all, but a species of farm implement that comes mysteriously and spontaneously into being coincident with the maturing of the cotton, that requires no upkeep or special consideration during the period of its usefulness, needs no protection from the elements, and when the crop has been harvested, vanishes into the limbo of forgotten things – until the next harvest season rolls around.”

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The real beauty of this song is…you could write in a short sentence what it’s about (migrant workers in the United States) but it would take far longer to write of what it evokes.
This is a genuine departure – and a real step-forward – in Phil’s songwriting. This isn’t just a song about something, this is a song that becomes that something, a song that is totally immersed in that something; its every line bringing the listener deeper into the experience. This is where Phil the singing-journalist becomes Phil the singing-auteur. It’s a glorious moment and one that is worth taking the time to drink in.

It opens with minor chord dread that continues until a sarcastic shift to the major chord optimism of the refrain –

Welcome to California, where the friendly farmer will take care of you”.

Phil takes us from the “rippling shadow waters” to “the hungry fields of plenty” – lines full of mixed metaphor and confusion. The third verse sings of brutal reality – of the biting sun and dry of the dust, “while your muscles beg for mercy”. Along the way we get my favourite Phil Ochs lyric – “when the weary night embraces, sleep in shacks that could be cages” – a line of beautiful simplicity, yet ripe with meaning.
If there is any real comment here, and of the old Phil Ochs fire, then it lies in the killer last verse. Here we are told of the economic reality at play here – that the “local men are lazy” and “we’d have to pay them double”, before the final lines, with its unarguable brutal starkness –

If you feel you’re falling, if you find the pace is killing,
There are others who are willing”.

The repeated “Bracero” after every line of the verses feels like a taunt, a constant reminder to the worker of their place – you are just a migrant worker, you are just a migrant worker, you are just a migrant worker, on and on and on. It brings to mind Woody Guthrie’s ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ where the dead are stripped of their identities and their humanity;

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’

The comparison with Woody in unavoidable but also somewhat misleading. The Bracero program existed long enough to be relevant to both Woody and Phil (if only just in Phil’s case) and as a subject matter it is absolutely what a young rabble-rousing protest singer should be singing about (the evils of capitalism and racism as well as the glorious sweat of labour) and yet there is something about Phil’s approach that transcends such obviousness. Phil sings without anger, not quite fully detached, but he is documenting more than responding. Thematically it maybe be a typical protest song, stylistically however it has more in common with his later Ringing of Revolution or even his even later still When in Rome, with it allusions wrapped up in images of terror and confusion. What Bracero captures is the point at which the rather prosaic simplicity of his early songs morph into something far more interesting, still showcasing his social concern and passion, but before his disappointments would swamp his vision with allegorical excess. Phil’s approach (not dissimilar to In The Heat Of The Summer) allows a song inspired by a specific topic to have wider meaning. Bracero conjures up not only the treatment of Mexican workers in the United States but the plight of ill-treated migrants everywhere. And whilst it is utter nonsense to suggest that a song that has universal meaning is somehow greater than one with a specific meaning, a song that is able to both do justice to the thing that inspired it whilst also being applicable elsewhere is one that has surely succeeded. More than that though, Bracero allows its subjects a moment or two of dignity, something that the Governments of the United States and Mexico failed to do for the twenty years of the programme.

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Bound For Glory

“Is this land made for you and me?”

 – Woody Guthrie

Bound For Glory

This isn’t so much a song about Woody Guthrie, but about Woody Guthrie’s songs, and their misappropriation. In May 1963 Broadside #26 reported that eight covers of Woody’s ‘ This Land Is Your Land’ had recently been recorded by the likes of The Limelighters, Peter, Paul and Mary, The New Christy Minstrel Singers, Flatt and Scruggs and Harry Belafonte. In 1962 Dylan released his tribute to Woody, ‘Song For Woody’, a slight song about not very much (“I’m seein’ your world of people and things”), except to say that he following in his footsteps. In the early 1960s, Woody Guthrie was trendy.

To Phil Woody represented the meeting of folk music and politics, of songs sung for a purpose, songs intended to inspire change and document the world around him. This wasn’t the Woody that Phil saw being represented by all the singers paying tribute to him, as he told Mainstream magazine in August 1963 “One of the sad aspects of the growing fame of Guthrie and his songs is the lack of understanding by some and prostitution by others”. Bound For Glory then is Phil’s attempt to reclaim Woody for the Left.

In his article titled ‘The Need For Topical Music’ in Broadside #22 in March 1963 Phil sought to explain this misuse of the Woody legacy;

“I have run into some singers who say ‘sure, I agree with most topical songs, but they’re just too strong to do in public. Besides I don’t want to label myself or alienate some of my audience into thinking I’m unpatriotic’. Yet this same person will get on the stage and dedicate a song to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as if in tribute to an ideal they are afraid to reach for”.

It’s an article that says as much about Phil and his motives as it does about the possible motives of others. Following Woody’s death in 1967, a memorial concert was held in his honour, with proceeds going towards fighting the disease that killed him – Huntingdon’s Chorea. Phil wasn’t invited.

The organisers were promised a record deal and T.V. coverage if certain acts were invited to play.

In an interview with Gordon Friesen for Broadside in 1968, Phil explained his frustrations with the event which he attended but didn’t sing at;

“The Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert was my last straw. At the end of the Woody Guthrie concert they sang This Land Is Your Land and I walked out in the middle of it because it wasn’t my land. I felt, and I feel now, that I should have been in that concert. I felt, and I feel now, that Jack Elliot should have been in that concert. I like Richie Havens, I like Judy Collins and I like Odetta, as performers. I think they’re all very talented, but! I can’t quite see the logic. Whoever decided that they belonged in the Woody Guthrie show and I didn’t, and Jack Elliot didn’t, I’ll go to my grave wondering about that!

I consider that concert a disgrace. I went only because Dylan was there. Psychologically I had to look at Dylan. As I sat there watching the concert I was writhing in my seat…They were up there singing songs and I was saying ‘fuck you’…by the end of that concert I was almost in tears…

After seeing that concert, I don’t think Woody Guthrie would have been invited to the Woody Guthrie Memorial. Because he would have been out of place. There were all these performers, and all these managers lurking backstage…and everyone seemed to be taking advantage. I’m being very bitter now, now I have no choice. I’m a folk singer, I’ve sang at political rallies for years, Woody wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’, I wrote Power And The Glory, he wrote lots of songs about World War Two…I wrote I Ain’t Marching Anymore for years I do this and here’s the concert and all of a sudden here’s Richie Havens…and I’m sitting in the audience – crying.”

It’s a revealing statement. Phil was learning that it was not simply good intentions that was key to singer’s career, not politics either, but success. Commercial success. In those terms Phil was an outsider, literally sat in the stands rather than on the stage. Along the way his ego was taking a battering.

Phil’s kinship with Woody extends further than singing Woody’s songs and singing about Woody. The themes that Woody’s songs concerned themselves with – war, poverty, unions for example – are also reflected in Phil’s songs. The most obvious comparison may be between Woody’s ‘Plane Wreck At Los Gatos’ and Phil’s Bracero, both concerned with the plight of Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. Both Phil and Woody also wrote songs about Joe Hill and there is the inference that the baton of left-wing song being passed from Joe Hill to Woody to Phil. At least that’s how Phil may have seen it.

The version of Bound For Glory that appears on Sammy Walker’s ‘Song For Patty’ album in 1975 continues this theme, featuring as it does Phil on backing vocals along with Sis Cunningham, who as one of the Almanac Singers performed with Woody. It is also a beautiful version, with Walker’s more urgent delivery adding something that Phil’s version lacks. It also retains the harmonica part, originally played by John Sebastian later of The Lovin’ Spoonful, the first use of an instrument other than a guitar on a Phil Ochs song.

Unfortunately, though Bound For Glory effectively pays tribute to Woody, Phil over eggs it with such indefensibly silly lyrics as “planted all the grass where there needed to be green”, and “fed all the hungry souls that needed to be fed”. As is Phil’s way, he can’t simply pay tribute to Woody, he has to make a wider point, as he does in the last verse, the verse which for which the song was probably written in the first place;

“Now sing out his praises on every sing shore,

But so few remember what he was fighting for,

Oh why sing the song but forget about the aim?,

He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?”

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