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Notes - Woody Guthrie, "Bound for Glory" and Current Events
by Laurie Ornstein

Synopsis: Laurie Ornstein once again brings music to life in the EFL classroom. Read about Woody Guthrie and his autobiography, Bound for Glory, and how his songs written many decades ago speak poignantly to our current events.

I have just finished reading Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory, first published in 1943. His song (of the same title) sings on in my mind. For those unacquainted with Guthrie, he's one of America's well-known and greatest folk-poets and singer-songwriters.

With his "music box" on his back, Woody sang for his dinner as he hopped freight trains with the hoboes, walked and hitch-hiked the dusty roads, worked odd jobs and picked fruit along with the migrant workers. He painted signs and even tried his hand at fortune-telling for a few cents till he finally reached California. His travels and experiences became songs and newspaper articles, this autobiography, his legacy.

Among Woody Guthrie's most famous songs are This Land Is Your Land, Deportees (also known as Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), Union Maid, So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh, Roll on Columbia and This Train is Bound for Glory.

The English-language classroom often becomes a forum for discussing current events. This is certainly true in my lessons. A news round-up often begins the lesson and offers a good chance for pupils to speak up, report the latest headlines as well as share their thoughts on these issues.

History and headlines seem to repeat themselves and there's a lot to be gleaned from topical songs penned by folk singers such as Woody Guthrie-- these songs can add another layer to the subject at hand.

Let's take a look at a few of Guthrie's songs.

Deportees or Plane Wreck at Los Gatos tells the story of the migrant workers in the USA who wade the Rio Grande River, the border between the United States and Mexico, to pick the crops and work the orchards. Then they are rounded up and flown back home only to pay more money to once again cross the border to find menial and seasonal jobs, as did their parents. Guthrie sings about how the plane, flying them back to Mexico, caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon and the newspaper reports that followed "erasing" the identities of the deportees.

Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

Are our daily papers all that different in their reporting? The Israeli newsstands are full of articles about foreign workers, legal and illegal. We can't help but see these nameless faces as we walk down the streets in our cities and towns or when we drive through rural communities. They take care of our elderly, work our fields and build our homes.

Foreign workers are certainly not limited to Israel but are an international phenomenon. This song can be a springboard for discussion of the subject.

Pastures of Plenty also tells the story of the migrant worker.

We come with the dust and we're gone with the wind.

The right to unionize is another "up front" issue here and abroad. As this issue of the ETNI Rag goes to press, the workers in a local Yeruham factory, down the road from my home, are struggling to unionize. Striking and beyond, we are all involved, one way or another, in our own teachers' unions.

Guthrie wrote long and hard about the rights of the workers. The Union Maid lives on and sings power to the women, too!

There once was a union made who never was afraid...

Union Burying Ground also sings the struggle for the workers' right to organize. And there are quite a few more song titles to choose from on this topic.

In Notes: Anthemizing I wrote about This Land Is Your Land. Guthrie's verse about the lines of hungry people outside the welfare office and the one about No Trespassing never made it into the school songbooks in my day. Both of these social issues are certainly relevant today.

Woody Guthrie was presented with the U.S. Department of Interior's Conservation Award for singing the beauties of America. Secretary of the Interior at the time, Stewart L. Udall, who gave him the award wrote:

"You have summarized the struggles and the deeply held convictions of all those who love our land and fight to protect it."

Let me end by highly recommending Bound for Glory. Join Guthrie on his colorful and rich travels across America. Try working his songs into your lessons.

Further Resources

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie, Foreword by Pete Seeger, Plume, USA 1943


Plane Wreck at Los Gatos

Pastures of Plenty

Union Maid

Union Burying Ground

This Land is Your Land

Index of songs:

Find some classroom activity ideas here.

Enjoy surfing Guthrie's official website.

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