In the late 1950s, Pete Seeger received a letter from his manager, Howie Richmond, begging him to write a new hit song. … [Richmond] believed that “protest songs” were not marketable. Seeger was angry—he had a new song in mind, with words from a poem that he had set to music, and he believed it was, in a deep and significant sense, a song of protest.…. The song, of course, was “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” which continues to be performed and recorded by many artists, and most famously became a huge folk-rock hit for The Byrds. It was as though, despite himself, Seeger produced a hit song, even when commercial popularity was the furthest thing from his mind—an example of how inseparably his songwriting talents and political principles were bound together.
In 1937 Woody Guthrie wrote a letter to his friend, the actor Eddie Albert, asking for a loan. He needed cash for a special project—around $300 for building materials. Guthrie had lately become fixated on the idea of building an adobe house. He had just read U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin No. 1720, The Use of Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Building, by T.A.H. Miller, and he was inspired.… It is not clear if Albert ever came through with the loan, but Guthrie never built the house.… [However] Guthrie never got over those adobe houses. A decade after leaving Pampa he completed House of Earth, a novel that celebrates adobe and relates it to a broader vision of solidarity and struggle.
Will Kaufman’s new book, Woody Guthrie, American Radical, describes how Guthrie’s life-long radicalism shaped his music and evolved over time—from the Great Depression to the Second World War, from the Popular Front to the McCarthyite witch hunts, and into the folk music revival of the 1960s. Kaufman argues that Guthrie’s work must be understood in the context of its time, but also in light of Guthrie’s commitment to socialist politics and his unrelenting opposition to capitalism and fascism.