Marvin Gaye, Woody Guthrie and the Myth of American Exceptionalism


A friend with a tangential connection to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., marveled on Twitter the other day that Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” remains relevant 40 years later. She’s right, of course. But why stop there?

Gaye’s 1971 song is certainly an apt soundtrack to the St. Louis-area demonstrations over the shooting death of an unarmed teenager by police earlier this month. The singer wrote the song with Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Al Cleveland after Benson witnessed a violent police crackdown on anti-war protestors in People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969. Even then, though, police brutality was an age-old thread in a broader narrative about race and ethnicity, social class, and power.

Woody Guthrie was singing about the same issues 40 years before Gaye. And the labor activist Joe Hill was singing about them before Guthrie even took his first steps. Nearly a century after Hill was executed in Utah on an obviously faulty murder conviction, it’s fair to wonder just how much has changed.

The parallels are plenty evident in “Woody Sez,” a moving musical travelogue of Guthrie’s life that has been making the rounds since 2009 (and runs through Sept. 21 at TheaterWorks in Hartford). As they did in Hill’s day, and Guthrie’s, the police continue, by definition, to protect entrenched interests. The government continues to spy on its own citizens, who can be blacklisted for expressing “dangerous” thoughts. The moneyed class continues its pursuit of profit with little regard for (or fear of) the law or the moral consequences of their actions. Jim Crow is technically illegal, yet segregation remains, and efforts at voter suppression continue, abetted by the Supreme Court.

Hill wrote “There Is Power in a Union” in 1913 as a call for solidarity against “wage slavery.” Today, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is among those working to undermine the tenets of collective bargaining. Guthrie satirized greedy financiers in “The Jolly Banker” in 1939, during the Great Depression. Today, the world economy continues a slow recovery from an economic crisis caused by banks that are effectively too big to let fail, trading in arcane and risky financial instruments that the people buying and selling them don’t fully understand.

Is this what passes for American exceptionalism, engaging in activities at home that we rightly decry abroad? Surely we can do better, so that someday songs from 40 or 60 or 100 years ago endure because they’re good songs, and not because they remain topical so many decades later.

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