Sunday, July 03, 2016

Tom Morello, Ryan Harvey And Ani DiFranco Record Woody Guthrie's "Old Man Trump"


To my mind Woody Guthrie has always been a model for young artists. That The Clash picked up so quickly on what Woody was doing in using his music to fight against fascism, helped rocket them to the top of my charts-- and keep them there-- from 1977 through Combat Rock in 1982. Meanwhile, Woody had died, just 55 years old, in almost a decade before The Clash formed. Last January I learned that Woody had written a song about Trump's racist/fascist father, Fred, "Old Man Trump" and wrote about it here at DWT. At the end of 1950 Woody rented an apartment from Trump in the Beach Haven neighborhood of Brooklyn, near where I grew up, and Will Kaufman, on a trip to the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa discovered the lyrics to a song, which had never been published or recorded, denouncing Trump's racism. Kaufman wrote that he wished the song would be recorded and that they lyrics "clearly pit America’s national balladeer against the racist foundations of the Trump real estate empire."
Recalling these foundations becomes all the more relevant in the wake of the racially charged proclamations of Donald Trump, who last year announced, “My legacy has its roots in my father’s legacy.”

In the postwar years, with the return of hundreds of thousands of servicemen to New York, affordable public housing had become an urgent priority.

For the most part, low-cost housing projects had been left to cash-strapped state and city authorities. But when the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) finally stepped in to issue federal loans and subsidies for urban apartment blocks, one of the first developers in line, with his eye on the main chance, was Fred Trump. He made a fortune not only through the construction of public housing projects but also through collecting the rents on them.

When Guthrie first signed his lease, it’s unlikely that he was aware of the murky background to the construction of his new home, the massive public complex that Trump had dubbed “Beach Haven.”

Trump would be investigated by a U.S. Senate committee in 1954 for profiteering off of public contracts, not least by overestimating his Beach Haven building charges to the tune of US$3.7 million.

What Guthrie discovered all too late was Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the FHA’s guidelines for avoiding “inharmonious uses of housing”-- or as Trump biographer Gwenda Blair puts it, “a code phrase for selling homes in white areas to blacks.” As Blair points out, such “restrictive covenants” were common among FHA projects-- a betrayal, if ever there was one, of the New Deal vision that had given birth to the agency.

...For Guthrie, Fred Trump came to personify all the viciousness of the racist codes that continued to put decent housing-- both public and private-- out of reach for so many of his fellow citizens:
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
Eighteen hundred family project ...
And as if to leave no doubt over Trump’s personal culpability in perpetuating black Americans’ status as internal refugees-- strangers in their own strange land-- Guthrie reworked his signature Dust Bowl ballad “I Ain’t Got No Home” into a blistering broadside against his landlord:
Beach Haven ain't my home!
I just can't pay this rent!
My money's down the drain!
And my soul is sadly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain't my home!
In 1979, 12 years after Guthrie had succumbed to the death sentence of Huntington’s Disease, Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett published a two-part exposé about Fred and Donald Trump’s real estate empire.

Barrett devoted substantial attention to the cases brought against the Trumps in 1973 and 1978 by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. A major charge was that “racially discriminatory conduct by Trump agents” had “created a substantial impediment to the full enjoyment of equal opportunity.” The most damning evidence had come from Trump’s own employees. As Barrett summarizes:
According to court records, four superintendents or rental agents confirmed that applications sent to the central [Trump] office for acceptance or rejection were coded by race. Three doormen were told to discourage blacks who came seeking apartments when the manager was out, either by claiming no vacancies or hiking up the rents. A super said he was instructed to send black applicants to the central office but to accept white applications on site. Another rental agent said that Fred Trump had instructed him not to rent to blacks. Further, the agent said Trump wanted “to decrease the number of black tenants” already in the development “by encouraging them to locate housing elsewhere.”
Last week Reuters published a poll showing the racial attitudes of the supporters of the presidential candidates. It probably comes as no surprise that, overwhelmingly, the Trump supporters are the most racist in America... and overwhelmingly so. These charts paint a picture of how the white supporters of Clinton, Trump, Cruz, Kasich and Bernie look at black Americans:

Click the image to be able to read the results

Also last week, The Guardian reported that Tom Morello, Ryan Harvey and Ani DiFranco have recorded a version of "Old Man Trump." The recording is at the top of the post.
“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,’” Harvey said.

Guthrie, a pillar of American protest music most famous for the alternative national anthem This Land Is Your Land, signed his Brooklyn lease with Trump senior as his landlord in 1950. The real estate developer inspired song lyrics and other writings, whose existence and relevance remained forgotten until recently.

In January, Will Kaufman, a Guthrie expert and professor at the University of Central Lancashire, brought to light Guthrie’s impassioned writings about Trump. Kaufman said he found the Guthrie’s writings before Donald Trump had announced his candidacy while doing research for an upcoming book about Guthrie. After Kaufman re-publicized Guthrie’s writings, Harvey began looking to record the song for the first time because of the lyrics’ enduring relevance, he said.

“It’s about how stuff was racist in the 50s and how stuff is racist now,” Harvey said of the song. “This is a modern song that just happened to be written in the past.” Harvey found enthusiastic collaborators looking to stand against the “politics of hate.”

In a video introduction to the song, guitarist Morello implores listeners to “stand up” against Trump.

...Guthrie’s writings focus in particular on the racial segregation within the housing complex: “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.”

Guthrie penned Old Man Trump at a time when he was thinking deeply about race and segregation in the US, Kaufman said. In a letter to his friend activist Stetson Kennedy, Guthrie described the Beach Haven complex as a “JimCrow [sic] town.”

“His landlord Fred Trump is in essence the mayor of ‘JimCrow town’, this segregated town,” Kaufman explained. Guthrie lived in Beach Haven for two years until his wife broke the lease with Trump when Guthrie became increasingly ill after being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. Kaufman said he returned to Guthrie’s writings on Fred Trump as Donald Trump began to discuss race on the campaign trail. Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from the US and said an Indiana-born federal judge was biased because of his Mexican heritage.

“I think it is really important that Woody is speaking to us from beyond the grave now,” Kaufman said.
The label that released the song, Firebrand Records is owned by Harvey and Morello. The two of them will appear in Denver on July 23rd at a show protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The area where Old Man Trump was building his segregated apartments is, today, right on the border between what is now the 8th congressional district, represented by garden variety Democratic politician Hakeem Jeffries, and the 11th congressional district, New York City's one Republican district and represented by Daniel Donovan, the wing-nut elected to fill the rest of Mikey Suits' term was the Mafia congressman was sentenced to prison and forced to resign from Congress.

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