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Woody Guthrie at 100

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Born in Okemah, Oklahoma on 14 July 1912, the revered American songwriter Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would have celebrated his hundredth birthday today; centennial tributes abound, including a This Land is Your Land Tribute concert at the Kennedy Center schduled for October. In honor of the anniversary, we’d like to feature the song The Sinking of the Reuben James, which Guthrie wrote to memorialize the sailors who gave their lives on the destroyer, the USS Reuben James. On 31 October 1941, the Reuben James was underway near Iceland escorting a convoy en route to Britain when she was sunk by U-552. Of the crew, 44 survived and 115 perished. Guthrie wrote the song soon after the attack and it was recorded in 1942 for the album Dear Mr. President by the Almanac Singers (which included Pete Seeger). Initially an isolationist left-wing group, after the Nazi invasion of Russia, the Almanac Singers recorded songs like the Deliver the Goods and Round and Round Hitler’s Grave urging American intervention.

In 1943, Guthrie signed on as a merchant seaman and made several voyages and lifelong friends. On these voyages, Guthrie would often perform for his crewmates, including the song The Sinking of the Reuben James. Guthrie wrote many songs during this time about the fight against fascism and oppression including All You Fascists are Bound to Lose, Tear the Fascists Down, Talking Merchant Marine, Life Belt Washed up on the Shore, and Miss Pavlichenko, about the famed Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Thanks for these songs and a happy birthday to Woody Guthrie.

Post by Curator Kimberly Guise.

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