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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.”

Tributes, reissues evoke golden age of Colorado songs

“Would you like to go to Colorado


Heaven’s there I’m told in Colorado

Well, I’m leaving in the morning and I’d like to take you with me

I feel that Colorado is a place we could be happy

In the mountains . . . Rocky Mountains.”

With songs like that on their minds — Hoyt Axton’s glorious “On the Natural” from 1969 — hordes of young people arrived in Colorado following neither gold nor coal but the sounds of pop music.

They had visions of a hip, mellow, wildflowers-in-your-hair utopia, a world away from the hard, hot, even at times bloodstained streets of urban America in those years.

In Colorado, the times they were a-changin’ — but in a more earthy way.

Defining all those changes was the golden era of Colorado song. It was certainly as big as a fourteener in its heyday.

At the same time as Denver’s rise, Dave Loggins had a Top 40 hit in 1974 with the romantic plea “Please Come to Boston,” its verse about “Please come to Denver with the snowfall . . .” being its most memorable.

The purity of Coloradan Judy Collins’ soprano voice on her best-selling folk-pop albums like “Wildflowers” was compared to the clean, clear air of the state she loved.

With those songs, a new Colorado emerged, a place where the radically eccentric Hunter S. Thompson almost got elected sheriff of Pitkin County on a Freak Power ticket that called for decriminalization of drugs; where communes inspired by the visionary Drop City near Trinidad were cropping up statewide; where music enthusiasts clogged winding mountain roads to reach the new Telluride Bluegrass Festival; and where a recent arrival to Denver like activist lawyer Gary Hart could get elected to the U.S. Senate at age 37 and be received like a superstar.

Fast-forward to today. Colorado has continued to grow, but the era of that kind of West-worshiping music from disaffected youths topping the charts has passed.

Yet several timely events — an upcoming John Denver tribute concert at Red Rocks, a new Steve Earle album in tribute to songwriter Townes Van Zandt, the CD release of Axton’s album containing “On the Natural” — illuminate that time when Colorado beckoned the youthful and idealistic through contemporary music.

On Saturday, public-television station KBDI sponsors “John Denver — The Tribute” at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, featuring a Denver-like singer, Roy Rivers of Hot Springs, Ark., performing with Denver’s lead guitarist, Steve Weisberg, and a six-piece band. It marks the 20th anniversary of Denver’s last concert at Red Rocks.

Van Zandt’s adopted state

Some of the best golden-era Colorado anthems came from the late Townes Van Zandt, whose spare, largely acoustic recordings have only recently built a sizable national following. He was a Texas troubadour and Colorado devotee whose introspective, often-pining compositions like “If I Needed You” and “Waiting Round to Die” serve as the archetype for today’s Americana (or alternative-country) music.

This spring, Earle — today a bard of contemporary Americana himself — released a tribute album called “Townes.” On it, Earle covers Van Zandt’s 1969 “Colorado Girl.” Van Zandt briefly attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in the 1960s, and during the 1970s he spent summers in the state, writing such other songs about it as “Snowin’ on Raton,” “Our Mother the Mountain” and “My Proud Mountains.”

“Townes used to say there are two kinds of music — blues and zip-a- dee-doo-dah, and a lot of songs written about Colorado tend to be zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” Earle says. “But Townes’ stuff is not that.”

Earle was a teenager in Texas, just beginning to play music in public, when he first met the older Van Zandt. Van Zandt heckled him; improbably, they became lifelong friends. (Van Zandt had a lifelong alcohol-abuse problem; Earle too went through periods of substance abuse.)

“Colorado was a huge part of who he was,” Earle says. “He had a horse he kept in a stable in Aspen, and he’d pick the horse up and ride across the mountain to Crested Butte every year. Sometimes the trip didn’t get completed, and I think he had to be rescued one year, but it was one of the places where he felt as close to home as he ever felt.

“He felt like Colorado was a cleansing thing for him, beginning of the cycle where he renewed himself.”

But Van Zandt also knew Colorado — and the cleansing it provided — would never last, which gave his songs such a bluesy presence, Earle says.

Axton’s natural high

That search for a “Rocky Mountain High” as an antidote for substance abuse propels another early Colorado song, the late Axton’s “On the Natural” from 1969. The long-out- of-print album containing it, “My Griffin Is Gone,” was released on CD recently through Omni Recording Corp.

In the song, Axton (who later wrote Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”) romanticizes escape to the mountains — Crested Butte, specifically — as an antidote for “little blue pills.”

The liner notes explain the reference was to Stelazine, a drug prescribed for an urban friend with a mental problem whom Axton wanted to help.

Songs of yore

There were plenty of songs about Colorado before the golden era: CU-Boulder’s library names such early-20th-century compositions as 1924’s “Where Rails End and Trails Begin,” 1926’s “Happy Colorado,” 1930’s “Colorado Midgets Waltz” and 1953’s “Colorado Skies.”

The latter was co-written by Judy Collins’ father, Chuck, shortly after moving to the state with his family. “Even though my father was blind, he said, ‘I’ve never seen a place so beautiful,’ ” Collins says.

“So he and Eddy Rogers wrote that together. It was a beautiful song about Colorado.” And then she sings it over the phone.

There have been songs about Colorado written after the golden era — Collins considers her great Colorado song to be “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” written in 1989. Warren Zevon’s goofy “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” even inspired a movie by the same name. And the healthy bluegrass scene continually spawns songs name-checking the state.

But still, given Colorado’s growth in population since the 1970s, as well as the “green” movement, one would figure there would be more such huge hits today. But there aren’t.

Leland Rucker, a Colorado music historian, blames that on the changing nature of how we listen to music. “We were all listening to the same thing back then — we all listened to the same songs. Today, a teenager doesn’t just listen to one kind of music; they make playlists on iTunes. We don’t have the kind of world where very many songs rise up to the top like then.”

But there may also be a reason today’s Colorado musicians are reluctant to attempt a Colorado anthem.

“Those (older) songs are still from our era of rock/pop/rhythm-and- blues modern music,” says Robert Schneider, who as a Coloradan founded the indie-rock band the Apples in Stereo. (He now lives in Lexington, Ky.)

“So in a way you’re ripping them off.”

The Rise and Fall of Drop City


(Ultimate Painting at Drop City)


AT THE SITE WHERE SOUTHERN COLORADO’S DROP CITY ONCE STOOD, all evidence of one of the first and most celebrated communes of the 1960s has dropped off the face of the landscape.

Once in this rural area known as El Moro, just north of the old mining city of Trinidad, its idealistic young residents had built their own Buckminster Fuller-influenced, multi-colored, geometric domed structures. Devotees of environmentalism and avant-garde arts, they used chopped-up car roofs for building material, experimented with passive solar heating and built a futuristic theater dome intended for panoramic movie projection.

Drop City received international press coverage and flocks of visitors, since it was near the state’s major north-south interstate, I-25. And it also won a $500 Dymaxion Award from the world renowned architect, visionary thinker and geodesic-dome champion Fuller, himself, for its “economically poetic architecture.” The most famous photo of it showed a horse grazing in front of the domed buildings — an impressive combination of rusticity and modernism.

Now it’s all gone — abandoned more than 30 years ago. By 1973, it had become “the world’s first geodesic ghost town,” in the words of one of its three founders, Clark Richert. Today, the seven acres it once occupied look too cluttered and dangerous to explore. A trucking and earth-moving company has what appears to be a collapsed hangar there, with some trucks parked on the property. A dog outside a separate house barks ferociously and doesn’t let up. It does not encourage drop-ins.

And yet, Drop City is hardly forgotten. In many ways, it’s never been more popular — not even in its heyday, which lasted from 1965 into the early 1970s. Right now, a documentary and major museum exhibit about it are both in the works. They follow an ever-growing number of books and magazine articles that discuss, remember or in some way make reference to the commune. These include T. Coraghessan Boyle’s best-selling 2003 novel Drop City; communard John Curl’s 2007 Memories of Drop City; and last year’s Spaced Out: Crash Pads, Hippie Communes, Infinity Machines, and Other Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties by Alastair Gordon.

In addition, 2001’s The House Book — a global survey of 500 architecturally significant homes — included Drop City, even though it no longer exists. In fact, so great has interest been lately that a Denver rock band changed its name to Drop City and Trinidad brewpub created a Drop City beer.

“Precisely because there’s nothing left, there’s this kind of magic around it,” says Adam Lerner, director of Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It is organizing a show tentatively called Deep Structure: The Ever-Present Legacy of Drop City for the 2011-2012 season. “It has a kind of legendary status, given how ephemeral and utopian it was. There’s something beautiful about attempts to imagine a different architecture for civilization, to reject the square box and try to create something from scratch.”

Indeed, the memory of Drop City drew several hundred people to a Colorado Historical Society-sponsored symposium this summer in Trinidad, where Richert and filmmaker Joan Grossman spoke. Trinidad, with a population just over 9,000, is the last Colorado city of any size before crossing I-25 into New Mexico. It is hilly and old, trying to re-emerge as an arts/tourist enclave after spending the better part of the 20th century as a rough mining town. When Drop City existed on its northern fringe, people didn’t know what to make of its strangeness.

“I was expecting maybe 20 people at a library,” Grossman says. “I think Drop City remains a mythologized curiosity for the people in Trinidad — what was this thing that sprung up in a fairly out-of-the-way community? It has remained something people really wondered about.”

She and co-director Tom McCourt, a media studies professor at Fordham University, hope to have a rough cut of the film done this year. They have interviewed most of the dozen or so primary residents, and have been able to obtain original footage shot by another of the commune’s founders, filmmaker Gene Bernofsky.

By the way, Richert says, the name Drop City does not refer to dropping acid (LSD) or dropping out of society, like drug guru Timothy Leary advocated at the time. It originates from a time in the early 1960s when he and Bernofsky, as fellow students at University of Kansas, practiced something they called “Drop Art.” From their apartment building, they would drop painted rocks (and other things) on the sidewalk below and study the responses of passers-by.

“It fascinated us,” says Richert, a Denver-based, geometry-oriented painter and also head of Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design’s painting program. (He also maintains a Drop City page on his Web site.) “We called them ‘droppings’ — like Happenings — and ‘Drop Art’ because it rhymed with Pop Art,” he explains. “And everything we did after that we called ‘droppings’. So Drop City was a work of Drop Art. It was a community of artists.”

Richert, Bernofsky and the latter’s wife, JoAnn, got the idea for a commune as early as 1964 in Lawrence, Kansas. But then Richert and a friend who eventually lived at Drop City, Richard Kallweit, heard Fuller speak at the University of Colorado in Boulder and got the idea to live in a domed settlement.

They pooled almost $1,000 and started looking for a suitable space. “When we found this property, it had just rained and it was really green,” Richert says. “They told us we could have it for $500, and we bought it on the spot.” The Bernofskys bought the land; the rest of the money went toward utilities and the first structures.

Many of the core group used playful pseudonyms like Peter Rabbit, Drop Lady and Larry Lard. All were interested in how creativity, life and work (not necessarily a job) could be intertwined into a new society. After the first residents built three geodesic-related domes, a New Mexico engineer, Steve Baer, helped design newer ones based on a zonohedron — a polyhedron-type geometric shape easier to assemble.

Drop City residents also found time to create their Ultimate Painting — which had a motor and spun from a ceiling as a strobe light shined on it. It was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum and in Paris before disappearing.

Eventually, the crush of media attention took its toll and the core group all left. But many continued with the arts.

In the 1970s, Richert, the Bernofskys, Kallweit and another former Drop City resident, Charles DiJulio, started a Boulder art co-op called Criss-Cross, devoted to “pattern and structure” paintings. Baer started a New Mexico company called ZomeWorks, inspired by his Drop City work. John Curl went to New Mexico to do social work at an Indian reservation, later moving to Berkeley to join a woodworking cooperative and write. His second book about Drop City comes out this year — a history of communes and co-ops called For All the People.

“I and many other people thought it would turn out to be a long-term family place and I could spend the rest of my life there,” says Curl, who lived in Drop City with his girlfriend (now wife), Jill, from 1966-1969. “As it turned out, it became clear it would be like most 1960s communal groups were: an episode in people’s lives. Everybody lived there for a while and moved on.”

Moved on, yes. Forgot? Hardly.

Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based arts writer who worked at the Denver Post — as art and movie critic — for more than a dozen years. He has also contributed to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Modernism and Cincinnati CityBeat, and is reachable at