Woody Guthrie, folk singer supreme, is known for the magisterial portraits he painted of Dust Bowl America and his sweeping indictments of social injustice. What’s not there in the beautiful imagery of his song “This Land Is Your Land” — the ribbon of highway, the endless skyway, the diamond deserts — is right there in the slogan often affixed to his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
But artists who traffic in grand themes are also allowed to get specific. In one of the strangest stories yet to emerge from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it appears that, more than half a century ago, Woody Guthrie penned lyrics condemning the candidate’s father, Fred Trump, for racism.
“Donald did inherit his father’s racism, and was probably actively coached in his father’s racism, and worked with his father to perpetuate it,” argued Will Kaufman, the professor of American literature and culture at Britain’s University of Central Lancashire who unearthed the scoop, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “He picked up the mantle and ran with it with his father at his side. That’s why people are interested in this I think.”
Trump has been repeatedly accused of racism after his comments about Mexicans and has repeatedly denied such charges. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” he has said.
The story begins with Kaufman, the author of one book about Guthrie already at work on another and a performer of the folk hero’s music, sifting through the Guthrie archives in Tulsa last year. There, in one of Guthrie’s notebooks — which contain pages upon pages of lyrics never set to music — he found these lines, written in the early 1950s:
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project
There was also this:
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just cain’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
“Beach Haven,” it turns out, was an apartment building erected by Fred Trump — that is, “Old Man Trump,” who died in 1999 — in New York to house large numbers of veterans returning from World War II. Guthrie, who served in the Merchant Marine, was among them. As Kaufman recounted in a story first published at the Conversation, the singer moved there in 1950.
“When Guthrie first signed his lease, it’s unlikely that he was aware of the murky background to the construction of his new home, the massive public complex that Trump had dubbed ‘Beach Haven,’” Kaufman wrote. “Trump would be investigated by a U.S. Senate committee in 1954 for profiteering off of public contracts, not least by overestimating his Beach Haven building charges to the tune of US$3.7 million.”
But this wasn’t just a story about a developer behaving badly. It was a story about a developer behaving really badly. In Kaufman’s telling, Old Man Trump followed federal guidelines against “inharmonious uses of housing” — as one Trump biographer put it, “a code phrase for selling homes in white areas to blacks.” Thus, Beach Haven was an oasis with a “color line” where “no black ones come to roam,” as Guthrie put it.
“These writings have never before been published; they should be, for they clearly pit America’s national balladeer against the racist foundations of the Trump real estate empire,” Kaufman wrote.
But the argument to which Kaufman — and, from the grave, Guthrie — give voice is less often discussed in the large amount of media coverage devoted to Trump in the past six months. Some have made the point that the Donald abandoned Old Man Trump’s commitment to middle-class housing; the argument that the Trumps’ entire housing enterprise, which was investigated for discriminating against black tenants in the 1970s, has racist roots is, perhaps, less often discussed.
“It’s not a case of the whole apple not falling far from the tree,” Kaufman said of candidate Trump’s alleged shortcomings. “The apple is still connected to the tree.” Asked whether Donald Trump’s alleged sins were as bad as Old Man Trump’s alleged sins, Kaufman said: “I think he’s sneakier.”