Woodie Guthrie honored at Constitution Day lecture
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 12:09
Southeastern honored Constitutional Day with a lecture given by Dr. Mark Fernandez of Loyola University. Inside the Student Union Theater Sept. 18, Fernandez gave a presentation on Woody Guthrie. Fernandez is a professor of history at Loyola University.
The late Woody Guthrie was an influential American singer-songwriter and folk musician whose lyrics commonly tackled political issues. Fernandez’s interest in Guthrie started one day while he was teaching summer school.
“One day in summer school, I had a bad case of laryngitis and I showed a film on the Industrial Revolution since I could not talk,” said Fernandez. “It was a historical revolution and how the Industrial Revolution made it easier for people to move. Then I thought Woody Guthrie was a hobo, who traveled on steam locomotives. I then took a semester off and was working on my other project and I couldn’t keep attention with it. I knew Woody Guthrie was the project I wanted to work on. So I went to my dean and told him this is the project I want to be working on.”
He has many other projects that he has presented, but his main purpose in researching the Woody Guthrie project is because he would like to make a book “about the history of twentieth century America,” said Fernandez, “but I want to do it in a way that maybe ties into some parts of America that often get left out of the big histories that deal with politics and war and do a history of the ordinary people.”
Guthrie may not have reached the height of fame and celebrity that other folk musicians reached, like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, however he had passion for ending racism.
“Woody Guthrie, a songwriter and social activist who is not well known to be part of the civil rights movement like other musicians of his day such as Pete Seeger, Odetta, even Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, was actually obsessed with ending racism in America and crusading for civil rights.”
Guthrie was also a homeless person who would travel by train. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he played his guitar on the radio, singing songs and telling stories. Guthrie found his audience there, and young people were fully involved on the subjects he would sing and tell stories about.
“He never fully evolved his ideas about race, and in the stories and songs he would frequently use the n-word towards African Americans,” said Fernandez. “I believed it showed the conflicts because he would go out in the streets and lobby for African Americans workers rights, but still use the old terminology,” Fernandez said.
One day Guthrie received a letter from a young African American boy named Terrance, and he explained to Guthrie how hurtful his words were. Guthrie was taken aback by the letter. He did not realize his songs were so hurtful because he was just doing what was known for his culture. The next day on the radio, Guthrie apologized for all the racial slurs and said he would not use them again on the air, or in his performances.
Fernandez went on to talk about ways Guthrie went about advocating civil rights, like traveling to major cities to give performances. Sadly, all of Guthrie’s songs, and his art, were created when he was battling Huntington’s disease. This confined him to a mental hospital, and therefore his songs and art have not been heard and “that chapter of his life has not been explored,” said Fernandez.
Carey Brooks a junior majoring in communication said he chose to come and enjoyed the way Fernandez portrayed Guthrie.
“My favorite part about Fernandez was how he shared how Guthrie loved the ideal idea concept of things because realistically he would not be able to do that specific idea,” Brooks said.
Even though many students were there for either extra credit, or because they had to be there for class, Brooks thought he gained some real knowledge of American history.
“The knowledge of history and of someone no one really has heard of interests me. I would definitely come back to see Fernandez speak again,” said Brooks.
Jake Williams a freshman majoring in business attended the lecture for extra credit, but also out of interest as to who Guthrie really was.
“I gained a lot of knowledge about Guthrie and others that actually made it big,” said Williams. “I would have never heard of him before unless I was in attendance today. I thought it was really cool.”
Ronald D. Traylor, professor of history and a U.S. constitution class, was in the audience. He encouraged his students to attend to learn something new.
“I tell my students that no day is a wasted day if you learn something. I look at it that way in their lives, and I look at it that way in my life too,” said Traylor. “My students come into my constitution classes not knowing how to spell ‘constitution’ and when they leave at the end of the semester they have been exposed literally to every word in it and I get little notes that say ‘Thank you so much, I had no idea that there was so much there.’ That it impacted my life in such intimate ways every day.”