homeabout kottke.orgarchives + tagsmembership!
aboutarchives + tagsmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

Woody Guthrie and the Family Trump

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2017

More than a year ago, before the Iowa caucuses, the story of folk singer/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie’s hatred for his landlord, Fred Trump (father of Donald) started to circulate. (I believe the first piece was this nicely done essay at The Conversation, by Will Kaufman.)

The story goes like this: Between 1950 and 1952, Guthrie lived in a Federal Housing Administration-funded low-income apartment building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island built by Fred Trump. But Trump (who already had a history of bigotry, including an arrest at a Klan parade that turned into a riot in 1927), quickly worked to segregate even his federal developments, prohibiting black tenants from renting in majority-white complexes or neighborhoods.

Guthrie moved out of the Trump building when his two-year-lease was up, but wrote a song about it called “Old Man Trump”:

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

And in fact, Donald and his father Fred would eventually be sued for housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; this was 1973, and was the first time Donald Trump ever appeared in the New York Times (“Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City”). They settled the lawsuit in 1975.

But that’s not the end of the story. The present-day Trump slogan “America First” is a direct callback to the America First Committee, an isolationist antiwar group that formed after the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe. It included pacifists and farmers and students and socialists and businessmen and a lot of wealthy, anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-fascist Americans, notably its main spokesman Charles Lindbergh.

As it happens, one of Woody Guthrie’s best protest songs, “Lindbergh” (or “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”) is about America First. It criticizes Lindbergh and the group, but also the devil’s bargain socialist and other workers’ groups across the midwest had made in partnering up with pro-Nazi capitalists:

Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ‘em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.

Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington

So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.

Easy enough to remember.

We Work Remotely