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Gus Stadler

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Gus Stadler
is Associate Professor of English at Haverford College. He is the author of a book, Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S. 1840-1890 and numerous articles on American literature and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 2010 to 2013 he co-edited the Journal of Popular Music Studies with Karen Tongson. His current book project is tentatively titled Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left

“Woody Guthrie, Sentimentalism, and the Idea of Cultural Politics”
The pages of the Daily Worker in the late 1930s and 1940s are filled with advice columns, recipes, and articles about how to stage an affordable wedding—material that seems anathema to the strident Marxist analysis that served as the raison d’etre of the newspaper. This talk proposes that we can’t understand protest singer Woody Guthrie, a self-professed communist who wrote frequently for the Daily Worker, without understanding his engagement with these celebrations of domesticity and emotional repair. I argue that Guthrie is as much an artist of the conduct of life as he is a protest singer or a labor songwriter. A comprehensive view of his work, much of it unpublished reveals his conviction that politics lie as much in the cultivation of good feeling as in agitation and critique—a view expressed quite explicitly in the monologue reproduced on a still-popular dorm room poster:

I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.

While this plaint—repeated in various songs and journals—might seem an ahistorical betrayal of politics, I propose that it extends from Guthrie’s encounter with eugenicist thinking during his three years living in California. Even as it anticipates a 60s (arguable) abandonment of class and labor for a politics of overcoming shame, it alludes to a very specific cultural and historical context of racial science’s construction of the body. Finally, I propose that we can see in Guthrie’s work—and his sector of the popular front—a dawning moment in the very idea of cultural politics, of the idea that cultural expression is innately political because it emerges from and reveals feelings.