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The Mystery of Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre”

Above: A portrait of folk singer Woody Guthrie by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma state Capitol. Left: Guthrie was a song- writer who employed patriotism and protest.
Above: A portrait of folk singer Woody Guthrie by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma state Capitol. Guthrie was a song- writer who employed patriotism and protest.

“My Dusty Road,” a boxed set of songs that the hard-travelin’, populist singer-songwriter of “This Land Is Your Land” recorded in the early 1940s, is a candidate for 2009’s best reissue. It recently received Grammy nominations for best historical album and best album notes.

Guthrie, who died at age 55 in 1967 after a long, debilitating illness, is considered the greatest of American folk singers, mixing anti- status-quo political protest with humor and patriotism. He was a key influence on Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and their followers.

Among his songs is the poetic Depression-era anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” included in “My Dusty Road.” (A recent version, by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, opens the current film “Up In the Air,” a top Oscar candidate about job loss in today’s America.)

“My Dusty Road” has been especially heralded for the way its pristine source material — metal master recordings recently discovered in a Brooklyn basement — afford a vitality missing from other versions of its songs.

But for all the improved sonic clarity, the record’s inclusion of the song “The Ludlow Massacre” only heightens the mystery about the tune. Guthrie recorded the vividly descriptive, pro-union song in 1944, when he was just past 30, and three decades after the infamous event in southern Colorado.

During a 15-month strike by coal miners against Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. of Trinidad, the Colorado National Guard on April 20, 1914, engaged strikers in a gun battle at a tent colony in Ludlow, killing seven men and a boy. Then, the Guard set fire to the camp, killing two mothers and 11 children hiding in a dirt bunker. That launched a rebellion that the U.S. Army had to come in and control.

Overall, according to author Scott Martelle of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West,” some 75 people died in the battles. The United Mine Workers put a monument at Ludlow in 1918. In 2003, vandals defaced it. The UMW repaired the damaged statuary, and last June the site was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Guthrie’s pro-union song, from the miners’ point-of-view, recalls the horrors of the massacre yet also exhibits their pride at exacting revenge

“The state soldiers jumped us in wire fence corner,

They did not know that we had these guns,

And the red neck miners mowed down those troopers,

You should have seen those poor boys run.”

Yet at the time the recording first came out, the U.S. was in the middle of a war against the Nazis (and the Japanese) that the patriotic leftist Guthrie so enthusiastically supported he placed a “This machine kills fascists” sign on his guitar. (“My Dusty Road” also has the intensely pro-American “Talking Sailor,” for instance.) It would be like Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle — two Guthrie-influenced singers — railing against the 1970 Kent State shootings after 9/11.

“Mother” Bloor’s influence

“The right to belong in a union was so recent, with the New Deal, that (activists) wanted to honor people for their part in the struggle,” says Kathleen Nutter, a history lecturer at Stony Brook University. “So to identify with something like that from 30 years earlier wasn’t that unusual.”

Much of Guthrie’s motivation for writing “Ludlow Massacre” had to do with his admiration for a remarkably colorful but now-forgotten, rabble-rousing figure in American — especially Western American — labor history named Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor. She was a founder of the Socialist Democratic Party in 1897, then joined the Socialist Party, and was a founder of the American Communist Party in 1919. She tirelessly campaigned on behalf of striking workers.

Guthrie was a communist sympathizer. He sang in the early 1940s with the Almanac Singers, a political/protest/pro-union folk group that included then-communist-influenced Seeger.

“Was Woody a member of the Communist Party? No,” says Ed Cray, his biographer, who also wrote “My Dusty Road’s” Grammy-nominated liner notes. “Did he sympathize generally with communist philosophy? No.

“But he did feel strongly that Communists were the only people doing anything about the things he cared a great deal about. Woody was a very early civil-rights advocate.”

Cray says Guthrie was moved to write “Ludlow Massacre” around 1941, after reading Bloor’s 1940 autobiography, “We Are Many.” In her book, Bloor recounts being in Trinidad, in the thick of Ludlow strike planning, on behalf of the socialists. After the massacre, she writes, she attended a dinner for the strikers in Trinidad: “Miners from Ludlow were there, fathers of the murdered children. As they went out after supper, the women quietly put a gun in the hand of each man.”

Only a legend

Guthrie uses her account for his lyrics. There’s just one problem. Martelle (told about Bloor’s account by this reporter) called it false. If she played any role at Ludlow, it was minor, he says. And Nutter, who studied Bloor’s archives at Smith College, says Ann Barton ghostwrote Bloor’s book when the activist was in her late 70s.

“It is quite embellished,” Nutter says. “It’s more ‘as told to,’ and her memory is not the best, and she’s a little like the Woody Allen character Zelig who is at every important moment in labor movement.”

Bloor and Guthrie were already friends before he read her book. In the 1930s, she gave fundraising hootenannies, known as Mother Bloor’s Birthday Party, at her farm in Pennsylvania, and Guthrie performed there.

“One of my favorite pieces in her papers at Smith is a crumpled-up old brown paper bag, and in red lettering it says ‘better red than dead — love, Woody,’ ” Nutter says.

“He had given her something in the bag and she had saved it. It was part of her papers. I’ve always wondered what was in that bag.”

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