RICHARD POLENBERG: Woody composed the a second song a few months later in the summer of 1939 about bad and outrageous practice that was fairly widespread in California in the 1930s, whereby the police would deputize armed men. Often they were members of the American Legion, World War I veterans, to aid in maintaining quote "law and order." Which was really a euphemism for breaking strikes.
This seems to have begun as early as 1930 during a strike in the Imperial Valley, when Legionnaires served as strike breaking deputies, because they were offered a kind of convenient, able source of personnel for vigilante action. That is, the veterans that-- here's what Kevin Starr, the historian of California, wrote.
The deputization of Legionnaires conferred on their night rides and daylight beatings, their roundups and trashing of migrant camps, the mask of legitimate police action. Vigilantes disrupted strike meetings. They dumped the belongings of migrant families on the highway.
They beat up union leaders. They paraded past migrant labor camps, brandishing clubs and nightsticks to terrify the residents. And we're not talking about a couple of people, or just a small number of people. Instead, this was organized on a county by county basis in California.
It's estimated that there were 5,000 vigilantes that were taken on in five counties in the state. They often acted as agent provocateurs, and broke up one strike and another, carting union leaders off to jail, all because they had just been deputized, given some official authority to do this. Woody Guthrie had once written of watching American Legion vigilantes in their quote "black sedans with hot searchlights, breaking up picket lines, using the ax handles."
They didn't actually get people with the ax and kill them, they would just hit them with the ax handle, and badly hurt them. And he composed a song called "Vigilante Man," that summer of 1939. And in it is you'll see there's a reference to Preacher Casey, who, of course, was the Preacher Casey, from John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes Of Wrath. And in fact, in the novel for those of you who remember, Preacher Casey is leading a strike.
He meets up with Tom Joad. And he tells him that he has, quote "been trying to start a union, got one started, and then them vigilantes busted it up." And shortly after Preacher Casey says that to Tom, the vigilantes, in fact, appear. And one of them kills Casey with a pick handle. So I'm going to play this. I'm going to try to play this, I should say, on this National steel guitar.
Need a slide. This is the song, "Vigilante Man" that Woody Guthrie wrote. And he wrote it again to a Carter Family tune, "Today Has Been A Lonesome Day," sad song. It's called "Sad And Lonesome Day." This National Steel guitar was invented by a man named John Dopyera, who emigrated to the United States from Austria-Hungary and was a wonderful inventor of all sorts of musical instruments.
And this first came on the market in 1927. This guitar actually dates from 1932, and it has these aluminum kind of things in it, resonators, that make it much louder than a regular guitar. So it was very useful for guitarists in orchestras, because the guitar couldn't be heard in an orchestra. But this guitar could be heard.
The National steel guitar would be played by many Hawaiian guitarists. It would be played by many blues musicians. Son House was noted for playing the steel guitar. And it's kind of no longer had its popularity, once electric guitars came along. Then you could play a guitar and be heard. So around the time of World War II, and electric guitars came in to use, this guitar went out of use.
But now, of course, it's made a comeback, because it's an authentic blues guitar. And anyway, you play it with this slide, and think when you are fretting a guitar, if you hit the right fret, you get the right note. With the slide, you can get, you know, a million different notes on any given string.
So you kind of hope and pray that you plenty mad on the National Steel guitar.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "VIGILANTE MAN"]
(SINGING) Have you seen that vigilante man? Have you seen that vigilante man? Have you seen that vigilante man? I've been hearing his name all over the land.
Well, what is a vigilante man? Tell me why he's a vigilante man. Has he got a gun and a club in his hand? Is that the vigilante man?
Rainy night, down in the engine house. There's nothing, just as still as a mouse. The men come along and chased us out in the rain. Was that the vigilante man?
On stormy days, we passed the time away sleeping in some good, warm place. Man come along, and gave them a little race. Was that a vigilante man?
Preacher Casey was just a working man. And he said unite, all you working men. Killed him in a river, some strange man. Was that a vigilante man?
Oh, why does a vigilante man? Oh, why does a vigilante man carry that sawed off shotgun in his hand? Would he shoot his brother or sister down?
I rambled around from town to town. I rambled around from town to town. They're herding us around like a wild herd of cattle. Was that a vigilante man?
Have you seen that vigilante man? Have you seen that vigilante man? I've heard his name all over the land.
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Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 6 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.