In a newly discovered song ‘Old Man Trump’, Woody Guthrie assaults again Fred Trump over the rents charged at a public housing project.
In 2016, I wrote about a cache of bitter writings by Woody Guthrie that I had discovered while conducting research for a book on the balladeer.
The invectives were directed against a man Woody Guthrie had dubbed his “worst enemy”: Fred Trump, the landlord of the Beach Haven apartment complex in Brooklyn, where the Guthrie family lived from 1950 to 1952. Woody Guthrie especially loathed the housing project’s de facto color line. (“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!”)
Later that year, Judy Bell – for 50 years the indefatigable custodian of Guthrie’s songs at TRO-Essex music publishers – told me she had found in her files a typewritten lyric sheet of Guthrie’s. Yet another broadside fired at Donald Trump’s father, the discovery comes on the heels of an in-depth New York Times article that details the “long history of racial bias” at the properties developed and owned by Trump Management.
‘Fred Trump made a tramp out of me’
Like so many memorable folk songs, Guthrie’s seven-verse diatribe is unashamedly simple, repetitive and formulaic. It describes the songwriter’s outrage over the exploitative rents charged at a publicly funded housing project meant for war veterans like himself:
Mister Trump made a tramp out of me; Mister Trump has made a tramp out of me; Paid him alla my bonds and savin's To move into his Beach Haven; Yes, Trump has made a tramp out of me.
Woody Guthrie was spot on about Fred Trump’s profiteering. He may have been shy about the details: the millions Fred Trump earned from rental payments; his squirreling away five percent of Beach Haven’s development cost; the US$3.7 million worth of borrowed, unnecessary Federal building funds that had been earmarked for construction. But Woody Guthrie instinctively knew that a raw deal was being played out at Beach Haven.
His song reflects, too, what the popular music scholar Edward Comentale has called Guthrie’s “rambing, funny streak”: a highly self-conscious and stylized rhetoric characterized by “an embrace of poverty and even dereliction in opposition to the structures of pride and power.”
Well, well, Trump, you made a tramp out of me; Well, well, Trump, you made a tramp out of me; You charge me so much it just ain't human, I've got to try to live with president Truman; Yess, Trump, you made a tramp out of me.
Finally, it conveys something much more sobering. It offers a glimpse into the mind of a man who had received a chilling diagnosis from doctors at Brooklyn State Hospital on September 3, 1952, while still living at Beach Haven: “PSYCHOSIS ASSOCIATED WITH ORGANIC CHANGES IN THE NERVOUS SYSTEM WITH HUNTINGTON’S CHOREA.”
At last there was an explanation for what had been a pattern of frightening and disorienting behavior in Woody Guthrie: constant dizziness, which he and others had been mistaking for alcoholism; sudden, uncharacteristic outbursts of verbal and physical violence; a heightened, often embarrassing sexual disinhibition; and the gradual twisting and warping of his writings – what his biographer Joe Klein calls a “linguistic anarchy” that “extended even to his address (Beach Haven became ‘Bitch Heaven’ in ‘New Jerk Titty’).”
The Beach Haven period, which had proved so hopeful at its outset (with more living space for the family, some modest royalties for Guthrie’s songwriting, and an opportunity for his wife Marjorie to open a school of modern dance), ended after two years with the breakup of Guthrie’s marriage and alternating episodes of hospitalization, incarceration and drifting.
Beach Haven: A Jim Crow town
Clearly, it was not Fred Trump who had “made a tramp” out of Woody Guthrie. Yet equally clearly, Guthrie came to associate the name “Trump” with dispossession.
Even as he was being dispossessed of his own neurological and expressive faculties, he wrote from “Witchy Haven” to his close friend, activist and Klan infiltrator Stetson Kennedy, of “Mr Old Man Trump” and “his little pack of pets” preventing him from doing “one single ounce of work to nail or to build or to fix up the joint.”
And he wrote of something even worse: Fred Trump’s “color line.”
“In addition to not being able to enjoy one single day of normal or natural life in Mr Fred Trump project of buildings here on acct of about ninety and nine clauses in his damnable old tenant’s contract, I find out that I’m dwelling in the deadly center of a jimcrow town where no negroid families yet are allowed to move in and to live freelike.”
Woody Guthrie lamented that he and his wife were forced to raise their children “under the skullyboned stink and dank of racial hate, jimmycrack Krow.”
Hence Guthrie’s parting shot at his landlord:
Humm humm, Trump, you made a tramp out of me; Hummm, humm, Trump, you made a tramp out of me; You robbed my wife and robbed my kids, Made me stay drunk and to hit the skids; Yepsir, Trump, you made a tramp out of me.
In late September of 1952, Woody Guthrie hit the road alone, to California, partly to come to terms with the reality of his diagnosis. Marjorie was left to apply to Trump’s office with a request to suspend their lease. After receiving no reply, she wrote to Trump’s Beach Haven agent on December 4, 1952:
“My husband after months of hospitalization and examination was declared incurable and is suffering from a fatal disease known as Huntingtons Chorea. We have three small children and since I now know that I alone will be responsible for them I feel it would be impossible for me to continue living in my apartment whose rental now becomes quite a hardship…. I believe I should be out within a week.”
To date, the archives have yielded no evidence of a reply, sympathetic or otherwise. Soon Marjorie and her three children – Arlo, Joady and Nora – left Beach Haven and moved to Howard Beach, Queens.
The lyrics of Woody Guthrie resonate today
It is not surprising that Guthrie’s Beach Haven writings should have attracted so much attention in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Some historical clarification is now in order. Journalist David Cay Johnston, for instance, writes in his new book “The Making of Donald Trump” that Guthrie “set his thoughts about Fred Trump’s rental policies to a song he titled ‘Old Man Trump.’”
In fact, Guthrie never wrote a song called “Old Man Trump.” Johnston used the title because it was a condition of the copyright license granted by the Guthrie family. Meanwhile, the song of that name published and recorded by Ryan Harvey, Tom Morello and Ani DiFranco is an amalgamation crafted by Harvey of verse fragments drawn from three separate archival sources (first published in The Conversation in 2016). Nor did Guthrie use the phrase “Trump’s tower,” as Harvey and his colleagues sing it; Harvey has explained it was his decision “to throw in a present tense reference.”
Guthrie’s Beach Haven writings have emerged at a time when his publishers, TRO-Essex, in partnership with the Woody Guthrie estate, are battling over the copyright to Guthrie’s most celebrated anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”
As Nora Guthrie has explained, “Our control of this song has nothing to do with financial gain…. It has to do with protecting it from Donald Trump, protecting it from the Ku Klux Klan, protecting it from all the evil forces out there.”
Fred Trump has a healthy track record in appropriating unauthorized songs for his campaign, much to their composers’ outrage. But looking beyond the campaign: If the Beach Haven writings are anything to go by, should we ever hear “This Land Is Your Land” pumped into the elevators of Trump Tower or in the clubhouses of Trump’s golf courses, there is no scientific instrument that could measure the velocity of Woody Guthrie spinning in his grave.
In addition to all Woody Guthrie and Marjorie Guthrie correspondence and untitled writings copyrighted by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., I gratefully acknowledge permission to quote from the following prose and lyric writings (all words by Woody Guthrie, © copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., all rights reserved, used by permission): “Beach Haven Ain’t My Home,” “Racial Hate at Beach Haven” and “Old Man Trump.” “Trump Made a Tramp Out of Me”: words by Woody Guthrie, © copyright WGP/TRO – Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. and Ludlow Music, Inc. (administered by Ludlow Music, Inc.), all rights reserved, used by permission. Special thanks to Judy Bell at TRO-Essex and Kate Blalack at the Woody Guthrie Archives.