SECRET LIVES

Woody Guthrie’s Racial Slap Against the Trump Family

“Bitch Havens” was what Woody Guthrie called the Trump complex he moved into, and was horrified by this exclusively white “JimCrow town.”

The discovery that the iconic leftist folk singer Woody Guthrie rented from Donald Trump’s father – and wrote a poem denouncing Fred Trump as racist – gave Trump-haters a Freudian gift basket.  But such intergenerational finger-pointing is dangerous. Guthrie wouldn’t have wanted fans blaming him for his own father’s racism.  

There’s no point being a novelist in these stranger-than-fiction days. Just as Donald Trump’s unlikely but successful presidential campaign began, Will Kaufman, an academic researching Woody Guthrie’s life, found the lost lyrics. Guthrie, born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, is associated with the Dust Bowl and the Oklahoma Panhandle not the Big Apple and the Coney Island Peninsula. Yet in the early 1950s, this troubadour of America’s troubled heartland lived in Brooklyn. Two of those years he lived in Beach Haven, seven 23-story brown brick apartment towers a Queens-based real estate mogul, Fred Trump, developed.

Guthrie was the idealistic folk singer, often pictured gazing off wistfully, with a suitably proletarian cap perched on his head, cradling his guitar with its sign: “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” Trump, born in the Bronx to German immigrants seven years before Guthrie, was the cynical developer, often pictured looking fastidious, his trimmed mustache and three piece suit exuding wealth. Another photo shows Trump with his business partner and son, Donald, standing on an overpass in front of nearly a dozen brick towers. To some, those modest rental apartments represent the post-World War II American dream of affordable housing for all. Today, Trumpaphobes see the drab towers as soul-crushing and exploitative, while justifiably resenting the racism that we all now know blocked blacks from enjoying these waystations on the way to home ownership.

In December, 1950, Guthrie signed a lease above Fred Trump’s name to rent one of Beach Havens’1800 apartments. While Guthrie could not know that in 1954, the government would accuse Trump Senior of $3.7 million in profiteering off this development, Guthrie did notice that “Bitch Havens,” as he called it, was exclusively white. Disgusted by this “JimCrow town,” he scribbled: “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/1800 family project.”

Two years later, after being diagnosed with the Huntington’s disease that would kill him in 1967, Guthrie left Beach Havens with his family. Four decades after his death, Guthrie’s songs remain an essential part of the national soundtrack that makes Americans, American. His “This Land is Your Land” unites left and right in lyrical love of country.

That is why finding those lyrics was such a gift to the anti-Trump forces. Who could resist hanging the sins of the father onto his controversial son? “I think it is really important that Woody is speaking to us from beyond the grave now,” Will Kaufman observed. In describing his important find, Kaufman wrote of Guthrie and Trump, this Outer borough odd couple: “No pairing could appear more unlikely.” Quoting Donald Trump’s proclamation that “My legacy has its roots in my father’s legacy,” Kaufman concluded:  “These writings … pit America’s national balladeer against the racist foundations of the Trump real estate empire.”  

The three musicians who then recorded “Old Man Trump,” Ryan Harvey, Ani DiFranco, Tom Morello, joined the bandwagon. “You’ve got Donald Trump talking about making America great again ... and so here’s Woody Guthrie, one of the definers of American history, coming out after his death and saying ‘No, it wasn’t a great era and in fact your father was part of the problem,’” the folk singer Ryan Harvey said.

The German term “schadenfreude” means the joy derived from another’s misery. Could we call these expressions “shander-Freud,” the psychoanalytically charged joy and supposed insight we derive from dredging up the ancestral scandals of someone we hate? “Schander” in German means defiler or desecrator; in Yiddish it means shame or scandal.

This psychologizing is as cheap as Fred Trump’s buildings (or his son’s tastes). Genealogy is not destiny. While it helps to understand who Donald Trump’s father was, Donald Trump is Donald Trump because of Donald Trump and should be judged as Donald Trump. 

Beware our fluid Freudian determinism of convenience. When someone we dislike has a detestable parent, we say “you see!” When someone we like has a disagreeable parent we say, “you see what our hero overcame!” 

Will Kaufman writes cryptically that “Guthrie had traveled a long road from the casual racism of his Oklahoma youth.” That’s the least of it: Charles Guthrie, father of Woody Guthrie, this icon of the American left, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan – and participated in the 1911 lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson. An African-American mother and son team, they probably were guilty of shooting a Deputy Sheriff over a dispute following the theft of a cow. Still, they should not have been kidnapped. Mrs. Nelson should not have been raped repeatedly. And the two should not have been left hanging from a bridge, so their murder could entertain people who saw the image on a popular postcard, offering a rare photo of a woman lynched. 

In schoolyard fights, taunting someone’s parent descends into the unacceptable. We have crossed that line in our politics. So many of us seize whatever we can to malign opponents because we ignore another essential Woody Guthrie lesson. His song “This is Our Country Here,” acknowledges America’s “ugly” and “pretty” sides. He resisted “just feeling her pretty parts.” But he also refused to believe “there is nothing good about her, nothing free, nothing clean, that she is all slums, shacks, rot, filth, stink, and bad odors.” 

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Guthrie explains: “because I knew the pretty part … I wanted to change the ugly part,” and “Because I hated the dirty part. .. I knew how to feel the love for the cleaner part.” That is the balance of the dissenting patriot, the thinking American, and the aspirational leader. That is the kind of greatness we want in America and in our president, raising Americans to aim high, embrace the bad, fix the good. That absence, not his father’s racism, is the problem with President Donald Trump.