Old Man Trump: Tom Morello gives new life to Woody Guthrie's protest song
Three artists are finishing and producing Guthrie’s song criticizing Donald Trump’s father and reflecting on race – a very current topic in his campaign
More than 60 years ago, Woody Guthrie bemoaned his landlord – Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump – in unrecorded song lyrics. Now a group of artists has turned his writing into a modern protest song as Trump’s son Donald continues his candidacy for US president.
Three artists have collaborated to finish and produce Old Man Trump, Guthrie’s song inspired by Fred Trump. The track, which had never been previously recorded, was released last week by Firebrand Records just months after the lyrics were re-discovered and publicized. Old Man Trump was recorded by riot folk singer Ryan Harvey with Ani DiFranco and guitarist Tom Morello.
“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.
“When it comes to race relations, he’s like an old-school segregationist. When it comes to foreign policy, he’s like an old-school napalmist. When it comes to women’s issues, he’s like a frat-house rapist,” Morello says in the video. “So let’s not elect that guy.”
The elder Trump was Guthrie’s landlord for two years in the 1950s. The public housing complex, named Beach Haven, was built near Coney Island and almost exclusively housed white tenants. (Kaufman described the neighborhood as “lily-white”.) Trump, who built Beach Haven using federal loans, made significant profits from the project.
In 1954, after Guthrie had already moved out, Trump was the subject of a federal investigation for overstating the cost of developing Beach Haven and pocketing the $3.7m difference. A Village Voice investigative series published in 1979 looked at the Trumps’ real estate empire, including the cases brought by the US justice department alleging “racially discriminatory conduct by Trump agents”.
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.