Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson: letters from Mary Baine Campbell, Tracy Strong and Steve Wagner

In response to my post on Woody Guthrie here, Mary Baine Campbell sent yesterday Guthrie’s New Year's resolutions for 1942. They are full of charming drawings and from wearing fresh clothes, something major to concentrate on being poor and ever on the road, to taking care of others, writing a song a day, beating fascism, and keeping up the fight, they are quite wonderful. See here.

Tracy sent the following note on the words:

"For those who don't know them, see the two last verses:

Chorus: This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway

I saw above me an endless skyway

I saw below me a golden valley

This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts

And all around me a voice was sounding

This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling

The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

The fog was lifting a voice come chanting

This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there

And that sign said - no tress passin'

But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!

Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office - I see my people

And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'

If this land's still made for you and me.

Chorus (2x)."

The New York Times also ran a good editorial yesterday on the new museum to Woody Guthrie in his home town. Perhaps the words of his fellow troubadour, Pete Seeger, most resonate. It is not the keeping of all the papers or getting lost in canonizing them; it is the living words, today in Madison and at Occupy, that ring out. The editorial also captures Guthrie’s sly sense of humor and marvelously emphasizes “Deportees,” his words that should rattle the repulsive Republicans (particularly the plastic Romney who in addition to blowing up Iran promises not to sign up the Dream Act) and the Democrats who do too little good even when not things harmful.


Homeward Goes the Dust Bowl Balladeer

Published: January 1, 2012

The news that Oklahoma is now ready to accept and celebrate Woody Guthrie, the seminal American folk singer who died in 1967, as a native son with an exhibition and a study center for his archives is welcome if long overdue. The state resisted honoring him for decades, because of his leftist politics. “I ain’t a Communist necessarily,” Guthrie said, “but I been in the red all my life.”

Guthrie, who wrote hundreds of songs during the Great Depression — about the jobless, the impoverished, the socially ostracized — is as relevant today as he was when he wandered and sang across the old Dust Bowl. His songs, some updated, could be heard during the recent Occupy protests. Any academic approach at the Tulsa center must not lose his fundamental sense of humanity or fallibility. “I hope that Woody will not be canonized where people try to examine every little word,” Pete Seeger, his friend and fellow proletariat-troubadour smartly cautioned decades ago.

There may be no sadder or more current song about the xenophobic demeaning of immigrants than Guthrie’s “Deportee,” a tragic ballad about Mexican farmworkers. Anybody caught singing his songs without permission, Guthrie once advised, “will be mighty good friends of ours.”

He wrote “This Land Is Your Land” to reach beyond the national anthem to the ordinary citizens facing life’s ups and downs with a lyrical edge. “As I go walking that freedom highway/ Nobody living can ever make me turn back/ This land was made for you and me.” Guthrie would probably not have been surprised by Oklahoma’s late embrace. “Life has got a habit of not standing hitched,” he said. “You got to ride it like you find it.”

On a bleaker note, my friend Steve Wagner sent a note about my post on Paul Robeson here, and the CIA’s likely role in slipping him a mind-altering drug and nearly destroying his life. Being an American citizen, particularly among the poor and radical, but in this case, among the famous, even legendary, is no protection against crimes by the US. Government, long before the new Congressionally-approved, Obama-signed indefinite detention. This is an article from the Times of London in 1999 which highlights the grim tale:

US Poisoned Paul Robeson with Mind-Bending Drug

By Tom Rhodes, New York, Sunday Times of London, 14 March 1999

The round of meetings, interviews and speeches had been strenuous, but by the time Paul Robeson reached Moscow on a spring evening in 1961, the singer, actor and Black American, was in usually good spirits.

He was planning to meet Fidel Castro in Cuba before returning to the US to join the growing wave of civil rights activism led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It was a very exciting prospect for Robeson.

However Robeson never made it to Cuba. A surprise party was arranged for him at a Moscow hotel suite, after which he was hit by an extreme paranoia and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.

Three weeks later Cuban Exiles from USA, led by the CIA, landed on the Island's Bay of Pigs in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Castro. This led to an international crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

On the surface, these two events appear unconnected. But, now Robeson's son is blaming the CIA for the sudden deterioration of his father's health, from which the singer never fully recovered before his death in 1977.

Paul Robeson Jr. claims that his father had been poisoned by the CIA to prevent what would have been a very high profile visit to Havana at the time of the American-backed invasion of Cuba. He believes, that his father was part of a wider plot to ensure that the charismatic activist never assumed his place in the vanguard of the US civil rights movement.

According to Robeson Jr., his father's symptoms at the time of the attempted suicide were identical with those produced by BZ, a mind-altering drug developed by the intelligence agencies in Britain and in the USA for use in a highly classified psychological warfare programme known as MK-Ultra. He found out that at least two Doctors that treated him in London and in New York had links to this programme.

Robeson Jr. on the anniversary of his father's death has approached the US, British agencies, demanding the release of all the classified documents relating to his father's visit to Moscow and the medical treatments.

Paul Robeson was more than a singer, and actor. He learned more than 20 languages, including several African dialects, Chinese and Russian. He was also the first Black man to be employed by a leading New York law firm.

For the intelligence agencies in America and in Britain, Robeson's stature as an artist, combined with his increasing radical political activities, made him a serious threat to the establishment. He was a close friend not only of the American civil rights activists, but also a leading light of the colonial independence movement, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Jomo Kenyatta.

As early as 1936, MI5 of Britain officers visited Robeson on the set of Sanders of the River, an Alexander Korda epic film that was the first to feature a powerful Black male star. The CIA (or its previous title) opened also a file on Robeson in 1943. At the end of World War II his case was assigned to a special agent who was directly responsible for covert operations.

According to his son, Robeson had several close brushes with death in the next decade. In 1947, a car in which he was a passenger suddenly lost a left wheel and it was found later that it was sabotaged. He was a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950-54 anti-communist witch-hunt and, with the onset of the cold war, his politics effectively ended his mainstream musical and theatrical careers.

Robeson Jr. found out that there were attempts to "neutralize" his father, and after more than 35 years of investigations and the gradual declassification of some intelligence documents. Robeson Jr. is a fluent Russian speaker and he had interviewed senior Russian officials in Moscow during the Khrushchev period and perestroika period – who were guests at the "surprise" party - which he found out that this party was filled with by all of the anti-Soviet dissidents.

Robeson Jr. said that after he visited his father the day after the suicide attempt, Robeson Sr. said that he had felt trapped in a real life "James Bond nightmare". The walls were always closing around him. He shut himself in his bedroom, suffering extreme depression and feelings of utter worthlessness – all symptoms that is induced by hallucinogenic drugs that were given to him.

Shortly after he left Moscow, he was admitted to the Priory hospital in London, England. Within 36 hours of his arrival in London, and against the advice of Soviet doctors, Robeson was subjected to the first of 54 electro-convulsive shock therapy sessions.

Mike Miniccino, an MK-Ultra historian with very close contacts in the American intelligence, said that the allegations that Paul Robeson was really targeted by the CIA were "entirely plausible." His family kept the suicide attempt and depression a secret. But, between April and June of 1961, the FBI kept a dossier and a "status of health" file of Robeson, which reveals that plans were already made to prevent the world communist movement from exploiting Robeson's "imminent" death.

"The fact that such a file was opened at all, is very sinister in itself," said Robeson Jr. now 71, at his house in Brooklyn, New York. "This indicates a degree of prior knowledge that something was about to happen to my father."


LFC said...

"the new congressionally-approved, Obama-signed indefinite detention..."

The legislation is not good, but given the signing statement Obama attached to it, it may have minimal effect. A lawyer who is knowledgeable about these issues wrote the following in the comments section of another blog:

"I think the damage has already been done by the judiciary, in Hamdi and its ugly stepchildren Bihani and Latif. A judiciary that won’t revisit those cases has already created a situation as bad as any interpretation one might want to give this statute. One that will revisit those precedents isn’t going to be impressed with this statute."

"That is, I think the ‘codification’ so many people are wound up about is completely meaningless. It’s already the law. If it wasn’t, or it turns out later that it isn’t, then the codification, hedged as it is, doesn’t do anything extra."

Alan Gilbert said...

LFC, I wish you were right (and enjoy your blog posts). But Obama seems to have been worried not about habeas corpus and the rights of citizens but about strengthening executive power against the legislature (he has wobbled on this, is less overweening than Bush, but still troubled (i.e. murdering American civilians far from the field of battle is something this administration does). At the least, even if Obama's signing statement should be taken at face value (I am increasingly worried about such things), it permits any successor to detain American citizens. Consider this in the context of the Occupy movement, and you will see that there is now some threat, and if any of the Republican candidates are elected, the measure is in place. It would be good if the judiciary would defend the law, but the Supreme Court is hanging, on habeas corpus, by a thread. And if the lawyer is right that the damage has already been done - America is in this further way a police state, not a regime adhering to the rule of law, which is at least the trend since Bush-Cheny - all the more disturbing...

LFC said...

I take your point about the uses to which a Republican president, if one is elected, might put the detention provisions in this legislation. The best to hope for is that the federal courts will revisit some of the worst judicial decisions generated by the so-called 'war on terror' (decisions that the statute codifies or purports to codify) and reverse them. But I don't follow these issues closely enough to be able to guess whether that will happen.

Alan Gilbert said...

The Supreme Court is divided 5-4 on the habeas corpus issue at Guantanamo (Kennedy was the swing vote). In this case, the legislative and executive have joined in pushing this. So whether the Justices will defend the rule of law is, sadly, deeply in question.

Post a Comment