Woody Guthrie, Will Kaufman and The Last Internationale: A Wobbly Collaboration

If you follow this blog at all (I write hopefully), you know why I have posted this wonderful manifestation of history in song. Both The Last Internationale and Will Kaufman are Fellow Workers, keeping the IWW traditions of peoples music and history.

The Last Internationale:

“Are you as surprised as we are to learn that Fred Trump – Donald Trump’s dad! – was Woody Guthrie’s landlord? And that Woody wrote songs about him? We decided to put his words to music and write our own verses about Fred’s equally evil son.”

Will Kaufman

Guthrie’s two-year tenancy in one of Fred Trump’s buildings and his relationship with the real estate mogul of New York’s outer boroughs produced some of Guthrie’s most bitter writings, which I discovered on a recent trip to the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa. These writings have never before been published; they should be, for they clearly pit America’s national balladeer against the racist foundations of the Trump real estate empire…

For the most part, low-cost housing projects had been left to cash-strapped state and city authorities. But when the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) finally stepped in to issue federal loans and subsidies for urban apartment blocks, one of the first developers in line, with his eye on the main chance, was Fred Trump. He made a fortune not only through the construction of public housing projects but also through collecting the rents on them…

Only a year into his Beach Haven residency, Guthrie – himself a veteran – was already lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood, which he’d taken to calling “Bitch Havens.”…

What Guthrie discovered all too late was Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the FHA’s guidelines for avoiding “inharmonious uses of housing” – or as Trump biographer Gwenda Blair puts it, “a code phrase for selling homes in white areas to blacks.” As Blair points out, such “restrictive covenants” were common among FHA projects – a betrayal, if ever there was one, of the New Deal vision that had given birth to the agency…”

“For Guthrie, Fred Trump came to personify all the viciousness of the racist codes that continued to put decent housing – both public and private – out of reach for so many of his fellow citizens:”

I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project ….

A Letter to Cosmo (Innit!)

This is why Hiraeth is the best album you have made so far. You wanted objective,* I know, but to paraphrase the great Gonzo, objective art criticism is a pompous contradiction in terms. That being said, I stick by this well-informed opinion, and here’s why.

This is a thoughtful and reflective album without any trace of navel-gazing or self-indulgence, and obviously the product of a very profound emotional journey. It is inward looking, but still engaged with the social. “These Streets Are Ours” is a defiant protest song, with a chorus designed for singing along with, and “The Likes of Me” uses the effective trick of displacement to remind us of some of the problems involved in acting in solidarity with the oppressed from a position of privilege. It’s a dilemma that any radical from an industrialised nation will recognise, if we’re honest.

Hiraeth is also unusually serious, for you. Absent is the manic Python-for-anarchists-esque humour scattered through your previous albums. There is humour, fortunately, or I would have to ask, “who are you and what have you done with Cosmo?” However, it’s more in the self-deprecating vein you engage when you tell stories, and so it invites us in without wielding a club.

You remarked that Hiraeth is “musically all over the place”. (I have no doubt this came from a place of perfectionism, a necessary but sometimes self-defeating characteristic for an artist). It is true that the styles deployed are from a wide range, but your enormous versatility is part of your appeal. (It sometimes upsets your fans, but that’s all to the good. We can do with the challenge). It can lead to some stylistic rambling around, true, but that is not the case with this album. This one works beautifully as an album, unified by your distinctive playing style. More importantly though, the lyrics make deft and empathy-inducing use of the first person perspective. Thematically and aesthetically, this album is the personal odyssey of a revolutionary, rendered poetically.

You are generally very good at first person narrative, and I have frequently enjoyed the way you make it serve as historical fiction, writing in the unwritten parts of our history. On Hiraeth though, despite it being obvious that you create and speak through “characters”, your artistic voice comes through very strongly. If we still used the word in its original sense, I would say this album is your “master piece”; it demonstrates your mastery of songwriting, of your own artistic voice.

This is the kind of album that requires listening carefully, several times, from beginning to end. You can tell your fans that from me, and I believe this album will net you new ones.


*I also get that “objective” means in this context “outside your own head”, but I can’t resist a chance to (mis)quote Hunter.