One of the great things that every society has ever had is an oral tradition, telling the stories of the culture in such a way that they can be handed down from generation to generation. So many aspects of our history have floated away, and all we have from them are the songs and the stories they left behind.

In the United States, most children get a basic musical education, which includes singing a few of these from our own history. I remember sitting in music class reciting the words to Home on the Range and This Land is Your Land, not really understanding what I was singing, but the music teacher made it clear that these songs were important.

It took my grandfather and countless long afternoons listening to him talk and occasionally play his six string for me to really understand.

Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin
Got him a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again
To Washington, Washington.

I remember his old hands, curled around the guitar, as his old, fragile voice sang the words to those songs that I learned in school, and a lot more that I didn't learn in school. Even better, he'd sit there and tell me about these songs, about how the people marched and sang If I Had A Hammer, or how the plantation slaves hid their tears under songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

I felt as though he was revealing great secrets to me, much like I felt when my father would show me how to take apart a carburator, or my mother showed me that you should put just a touch of ginger into a good batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Missus Charlie Lindbergh, she come dressed in red,
Said: "I'd like to sleep in that pretty White House bed
In Washington, Washington."

The ones that always got to me were the ones that were directly about historical events. He knew Sinking of the Reuben James and 1913 Massacre and Ohio, and he wasn't afraid to tell me about students getting shot at Kent State University or about the desperate casualties of the early days of World War II, when it looked like the United States was going to lose the war.

Lindy said to Annie: "We'll get there by and by,
But we'll have to split the bed up with Wheeler, Clark, and Nye
In Washington, Washington."

His frank statements about the United States losing World War II shocked me; my teachers had told me that we won World War II soundly because we were right and the good guys would always beat the bad guys. I told him this, and he'd laugh and laugh.

One day, he looked at me sort of quizzically and asked me if I knew who Charles Lindbergh was. Of course I did! He was a great hero to all Americans who bravely flew by himself across the Atlantic Ocean all by himself in 1927, and was the first man to do it, too. I should have known there was much more because of the twinkle in his eye.

Hitler wrote to Lindy, said "Do your very worst,"
Lindy started an outfit that he called America First
In Washington, Washington.

I remember hearing him play Lindbergh in bits and pieces before, but I never associated the "Lindy" he sang about with Charles Lindbergh; in fact, I didn't really know what he was singing about. What I do remember is the first time he played it all the way through, I had this sense that Lindbergh had done something very bad.

I looked down at my hands at the end of the song and my grandfather noticed this, so he asked me what was wrong. I looked up and said, "Lindy was a bad man." My grandfather looked at me and sighed, "I wish it were that easy to say someone was good or bad, but sometimes it isn't."

All around the country, Lindbergh he did fly
Gasoline was paid for by Hoover, Clark, and Nye
In Washington, Washington.

So in that long, warm afternoon, I got another history lesson from a man who lived through it. He told me all about the anti-war movement in the United States before and even into World War II. He told me about America First and about how Charles Lindbergh almost ran for President in 1940 against FDR, and he would have won, too, according to my grandfather.

You see, people are always scared of war, even if it is the right thing to do. No matter how justified the conflict, there will always be people who believe that there is still a chance for peace. Lindy was one of those people, whether it was for a good reason or not.

Lindy said to Hoover: "We'll do the same as France:
Make a deal with Hitler, and then we'll get our chance
In Washington, Washington"

It was from my grandfather, and from songs like Lindbergh, that I first learned that history books, particularly those taught in schools, are often not right, or at least heavily shade historical events to one perspective. My history textbooks all through my school years always painted a picture of a strongly unified America and never mentioned groups like America First.

I also learned that school was not the place to ask questions; when the teacher would make a grand statement about how unified the United States was during World War II, any mention of America First would get me a dirty look. Whenever a teacher called Charles Lindbergh a hero, I dared not mention that he was openly anti-Semitic.

Then they had a meetin', and all the Firsters come,
Come on a-walkin', they come on a-runnin',
In Washington, Washington

It wasn't until high school when I discovered real historical writers and writings, ones that actually researched their topics in depth rather than just a superficial examination. From David McCullough I learned that Harry Truman was much more than just "Give 'em Hell Harry." From Dee Brown, I learned the real truth about cowboys and Indians.

I found that the best thing you can do to find the truth is to snuggle up close to those that were there and listen, or trust those who were careful enough to find out what people who were really there actually saw and did and thought.

Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin' the silver chain,
Cash on his stomach and Hitler on the brain.
In Washington, Washington

To me, that's the value of Woody Guthrie. He can sing about things like America First and the anti-World War II movement with authenticity because he was there, and without his voice coming to me via my grandfather, I would never have known about such a thing.

Our cultural heritage is just that: the ability to spread knowledge and history from generation to generation, from person to person, without revisionists interfering with the process. Without my grandfather acting as the old village bard, I would have gone on believing a half-truth about the greatest generation.

Mister John L. Lewis would sit and straddle a fence,
His daughter signed with Lindbergh, and we ain't seen her since
In Washington, Washington

It is because of Woody Guthrie and Dee Brown, who recorded history, and people like James Joyce and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who took their realities and turned them into something essential, that I dream of becoming a writer. I dream of the day where my words can reach thousands, providing a glimpse into my reality, even after I have perished from this earth and all I leave behind is the words.

Hitler said to Lindy: "Stall 'em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan."
In Washington, Washington

I guess there's one more element to why I want to become a writer than just the ability to speak my truth. When my grandfather became ill with cancer and it was clear to him that he wasn't going to be around much longer, he took me aside one day and told me that he knew I had a gift for words inside of me, and that it was up to me to make him proud by using that gift for something great.

He reached over to the side of the bed and produced a brown paper bag, which he handed to me. Inside it was my first journal. He looked at me with his old brown eyes, and he said, "Make me proud."

I only hope that I can.

Then on a December mornin', the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
Washington, Washington

When my grandfather finally succumbed to cancer, hundreds of people came to his funeral, many of whom I didn't know. What I do remember is one old fellow, who looked down at my grandfather and said good bye to him, then slipped a guitar pick into his fingers.

It was the most fitting tribute that I can think of to the magic he had brought into my life and, apparently, into this unknown old man who slipped away into the night before a young boy full of questions could find him.

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn't let 'im in,
'Fraid he'd sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington

Throughout my life, I've always been a fan of used record stores, where they'll have box after box after box of old used records to dig through in which to find a treasure. I've always quite enjoyed folk music, so I often go in these stores looking for old folk and blues recordings. I had often looked for one with Lindbergh on it, but most Woody compilations stuck with better known numbers like This Land is Your Land and Muleskinner Blues.

One very hot, sticky summer day, I came upon a used record store in saint Louis, Missouri, where they had the records divided up by type, and they had a huge section of folk records. Naturally, it wasn't long before I had an armload of them, and I was just about to leave when I spotted a Woody Guthrie record I hadn't seen before. Hard Travelin' looked like someone had cobbled it together in a basement, but there it was right in front of me.

I felt like my grandfather was peeking over my shoulder when I read the label around the spindle and lo and behold, it had Lindbergh on it.

It was as if a circle had become complete, tying me to Woody to my grandfather. And I suppose that's the magic of all of it.

So I'm a gonna tell you people: If Hitler's gonna be beat,
The common workin' people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.

I think my grandfather would be extremely proud to hear me sing this song to others, or tell others about it. I like to think that he's on a long walk in the woods, just far enough out of sight so that I can't see him, but still close enough that he can hear the words when I sing from my heart, passing the song and the story on to another group of people.

I guess that's what this writeup is really all about. It is these stories, told by the local bard, that have provided such a fundamental piece of everyone's cultural heritage. Because of my grandfather, I can remember this one, and because of the internet, I get the opportunity to be the bard at your local inn, telling a story that is lost in the mists of time for many of us.

And I'm gonna tell you workers, 'fore you cash in your checks:
They say "America First," but they mean "America Next!"
In Washington, Washington.

These days, I spend my time with my hands wrapped around a gnarled old guitar, trying to figure out the chords to songs like "Move On" and "Ain't Got So Far To Go" so that some day I can sing these songs to my children, and they can look up at me with those bright shining eyes, ready and willing to hear these songs that relate our history.

Rest assured I'll be playing Lindbergh for them, too.


This review was checked with special care with regards to E2 FAQ: Copyrighted Material. Read on, from the hand of Woody Guthrie himself, when this recording was released in 1942:

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

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