Photo by Al Aumuller
This week marked the 104th birthday of peoples’ musician Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma spent his career travelling the United States and singing for everyday working people - telling their stories and supporting their struggles. Guthrie died in 1967, but he inspired a whole generation of topical folksingers including Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.
In 2012, for the Woody Gutrie centennial, our publisher Norm Stockwell wrote this article together with his father (who grew up in China and also met Woody Guthrie once in Cleveland, Ohio). The article, which first appeared on Ed Garvey’s FightingBob-dot-com website tells of a modern day Woody Guthrie singing to the migrant workers of modern China.
From the Archives: China's Woody Guthrie Sings for a New Generation of Migrants
By Foster Stockwell and Norman Stockwell
October 3rd, 2012 marks the 45th anniversary of the death of the legendary folk musician and activist Woody Guthrie. Guthrie suffered from Huntington’s disease, and spent the last years of his life out of public view. In this country, the politics of folksinger Woody Guthrie were almost buried in history. His most famous song “This Land Is Your Land,” has been honored by politicians and school teachers – but only after the most pointed verses were removed. But now, at the centenary of his birth, Guthrie’s radical legacy is receiving more notice through concerts, radio specials, and new biographies.
There are many in China who know of Woody Guthrie and his contributions to the American left, even though most of them have never heard his music. Although many Chinese know something of Guthrie, it seems that no one on this side of the ocean has ever heard of the Chinese folksinger Sun Heng, who like Guthrie is a champion of the plight of the Chinese migrants; a singer who in his own country has been called “the Chinese Woody Guthrie.” At construction sites and in factories all over China Sun has been singing for free to a massive fan base composed of poor migrant workers. They sing his songs, cheer him on, and, when they can afford it, buy his CDs and cassettes.
In an email interview for this article, Sun Heng said that he respects Guthrie very much “because Guthrie provided music for the grassroots people.” He said that like Guthrie he plays for the working class, and that music should always be for the general public. “However Guthrie’s music is American folk music, while I play modern Chinese music.”
Sun Heng is championing the lives of China’s migrant workers, much as Woody Guthrie sang about the plight of American migrants in the 1930s and 40s. But the number of migrants from rural China to its cities would have been unimaginable in Guthrie’s day. In her recent book Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration, journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka notes:
“At any given time, over 200 million such people leave their families and farms behind and flock to China’s urban centers, where they provide a profusion of cheap labor that helps fuel the country’s massive city-building process as well as its staggering economic growth . . . these migrants are involved in every aspect of China’s own domestic life.”
Sun Heng was born in 1975 in a remote mountain village in Shaanxi province in northern China, where as a child he sang folk songs about the nearby Yellow River. Sun later moved with his parents to the city of Kaifeng in Henan Province, one of China's poorest regions. He was able to work his way through teachers’ training school by helping his mother sell produce from the family plot. His political consciousness was quickly elevated when some government officials came to collect vending fees. Because his mother couldn't pay, they confiscated her cabbages for their own tables. “They were eating the people's vegetables,” he remembered angrily in a 2002 Time International interview, “I thought, in the future I want to change this unfairness.”
After his graduation, Sun became a music teacher at one of the local middle schools, a job he liked at first but which soon became repetitive and tedious in China’s rigid system of education. Then in 1998, much to the distress of his parents he left Kaifeng and took to the rails to go north to Beijing, the capital of economically booming China and a beacon for millions of migrant workers from less developed provinces. Sun was 23 years old; the same age at which Woody Guthrie left his family after the Great Dust Storm to head west to California.
At first Sun hoped his guitar might provide him with an income, but like any other migrant to the big city he had many hardships. He carried heavy loads, drove pedicabs, did busking, and sang in some small night clubs. Sometimes he had to live on 1.5 Yuan a day, or about 19 cents. But he also became enthralled with western Rock and Roll music and saw it as a way of changing society.
Sun told German interviewers Max Jorge Hinderer and Matthijs de Bruijne in 2010, “I learned from foreign singers like Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg; I found that they used music to speak about social problems to the public. I admired them a lot.” It was a similar exposure to the singing traditions of the Industrial Workers of the World that shaped Woody Guthrie’s musical style. As Will Kaufman notes in his 2011 biography Woody Guthrie: American Radical: “What would impress Guthrie most about the Wobblies would be their use of song as a weapon…..”
Spending his time walking, singing, and observing, Sun realized that he had more of a chance of being shouted at by the police than applauded by an audience. He then left Beijing to see other cities. On a visit to Tianjin, he played his guitar for a group of construction workers for whom his music particularly resonated. Their faces lit up as they smiled broadly at the lyrics in his songs. These songs had tunes resembling those they knew from their home villages, but the lyrics described their miserable condition as rural workers in an urban environment. Like the young Woody Guthrie, Sun’s experiences as a migrant worker had given him the material for songs that would soon reach millions of other migrant workers, whom he considered to be his brothers. In April 2002, Sun formed “The Art Troupe of Young Migrant Workers” (also translated as “New Workers Art Troupe “) to perform political music for migrant workers. They are currently touring to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
Photo: Poster of the 10th anniversary tour of the New Workers Art Troupe. Sun Heng in the center. (Translation: “To sing for the workers: New Workers Art Troupe - 10 Year Anniversary National Tour for a Social Cause”).
When asked by e-mail this Summer to talk about the similarities he sees between the migrants’ lives that Woody Guthrie chronicled and those in his own songs, Sun said:
“In my eyes, both of them are historical processes of industrialization and urbanization, and [in] the process the rural people become urban people. Either in the US or in China, the rural people and workers are the main labor [force], with great sacrifice and costs being paid during this process, so as to push the process of industrialization and urbanization throughout the whole country.”
In November 2002, Sun Heng and his colleagues established “The Migrant Worker’s Home,” a cultural center and performance space in Beijing that quickly grew to serve the needs of the migrant community with the addition of a legal hotline and drop-in center. After a Chinese publisher produced one of their CDs, it sold 100,000 copies, giving them enough money to start a small school for the children of migrants unable to attend Chinese schools in their non-home district. With the support of university volunteers and workers the school opened in August 2005 in Pi village at a disused factory in Beijing's eastern Chaoyang district. This “Tongxin (meaning ‘solidarity’) Experimental School” provides schooling for over 430 children whose parents cannot afford the tuition fees or even the cost of a school uniform at a public school. The school also provides parents with night courses on subjects such as law and the use of computers, and it has opened reading rooms to increase literacy. A series of clothing resale shops (currently six) followed in 2005, and finally in 2007 Sun opened the Art and Cultural Museum of the Migrant Workers, based on the principle:
“If you aren’t aware of your culture it seems that you haven’t existed in history.”
The number of China’s rural migrants is equal in number to about two-thirds of the U.S. population, though with China’s more that 1.3 billion people they compose slightly less than 15 percent of that country’s population. Unlike the dust bowl migrants of Woody Guthrie’s day, they are farmers from thousands of tiny villages who go to the cities to find work to augment their limited farm income. On any day in the city of Beijing there are millions of migrants working mostly on construction jobs as the city’s skyline rises higher and higher with each passing year, or at various menial jobs in small factories, and a variety of other tasks such as street sweeping, sharpening knives, house cleaning, and caring for children. They are underpaid because they are not residents of the city and therefore have no recourse to the legal justice structures. The urbanites disdain them as bumpkins, and most of the city governments deny them services such as subsidized medical care and public schooling for their children. Those working in construction live in quickly built dormitories near each work site. Others live in newly formed migrant communities that are crowded into tenement-like buildings or even garages. On some streets during the daytime one can find a scattering of new arrivals holding up signs seeking work.
To large crowds of eager migrants Sun Heng sings his highly popular number titled “Get Back Our Wages, Fighting in Solidarity.” This song relates a story in northwest China's Shaanxi provincial dialect about bosses that owe the workers back pay. It includes the line: “Unite your hearts and strive as one / And get your money when the work is done.” There is no fancy light show and no big stage, but Sun is able to whip up as much excitement as any international pop singer.
Sun's New Workers Troupe has staged hundreds of performances for thousands of migrant workers. They now have five albums and an official website (www.dashengchang.org.cn). Another CD is scheduled to be released this September. Sun himself has become a media celebrity in China. He has been featured in articles in several newspapers, and he has appeared on network TV shows. But still, only one out of ten bosses or foremen is willing to let him inside a factory to perform. Most bosses fear Sun’s call to the workers to defend their rights by asking for back pay or insurance.
Sometimes the Troupe’s musical performances are expanded to include a stand-up comedian, a short anti-discrimination drama about migrant workers, and a poet who regrets spending the Lunar New Year in a poor migrant shanty instead of his familiar village. His music and these acts clearly capture the discrimination these migrants face. Before closing the show, Sun sometimes distributes copies of China Reform, a magazine that is published in Hong Kong. He has also encouraged other singers to follow his example.
One of the CDs of his songs includes a number sung by a youth chorus from the Tongxin school. It is set to the tune of “We Shall Overcome,” and starts with this verse:
We are holding hands in hands, shoulders to shoulders We are going ahead in solidarity Going through uncertainties and overcoming obstacles Our ideals can come true.
This song then ends with the familiar line “We shall overcome some day.”
The title song of his 2004 CD says: “Hand in hand/ Shoulder to shoulder/ Out of the mist/ Out of hardship/ All workers are one family.” These lines are very reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” written in 1940 to the tune of “John Hardy.” Like Guthrie, Sun often sets his contemporary lyrics to traditional melodies. One song simply called “Why” was recently posted on the musicians’ file-sharing site Soundcloud under the account name “Workers’ Band”. Set to an old Shaanxi folk melody from Sun’s youth, the critique is of today’s inequities:
The price is jumping, Why can the wage never catch up with it! The economy is growing, Why is the gap between the rich and the poor widening! Why? Why is it? Why? Why is it? The poor are becoming poorer and poorer, Why are the rich becoming more and more callous? Our material life has become better and better, Why is our heart becoming emptier and emptier? The lyric is simple and direct and quite reminiscent of Guthrie’s 1940’s song “I’ve Got To Know”: Why can't my two hands get a good pay job? I can still plow, plant, I can still sow! Why did your lawbook chase me off my good land? I'd sure like to know, friend, I've just got to know! What good work did you do, sir, I'd like to ask you, To give you my money right out of my hands? I built your big house here to hide from my people, Why you crave to hide so, I'd love to know!
Another of Sun’s songs on Soundcloud, recorded in a hauntingly Dylan-esque style with strong guitar strumming and harmonica breaks, speaks of the way he sees his role as an artist:
My guitar knows what to sing, it only sings my heartfelt songs, It doesn’t sing how many lovers a rich man has, or how beautiful and handsome the girls and boys are, It only sings the sorrows and joys, the sweet and bitters of the poor people, only sings about our real life.
There are also songs on the band’s CDs written by some of his colleagues and band members: Duan Yu, Jiang Guo Liang, Li Xin, and Xu Duo. In addition to guitar and harmonica the music is accompanied by various instruments including accordion, drums, and piano. Much of it uses the five-tone scale of Chinese music rather than the eight-tone scale with which Westerners are familiar, and many of the songs are in a major key with a strong rhythm. Thus they may seem somewhat repetitious to American listeners. However these songs delight Sun’s audiences who are familiar with the tunes from their villages. “We need songs about our lives,” Sun told China’s Xinhua News Agency in a 2006 interview, “not hollow ditties and sweet melodies about urban vanity. For me, music is not the end anymore, it is the means, I hope my music can enrich their lives of labor and help them form bonds. I also sing about life far from home, antagonism from urbanites, and the workers' dreams for a better life. My songs are sung in regional accents and sometimes in rap style.”
One of the songs Sun has written, “Brother Bill,” describes the situation that most of the migrant workers find themselves in after they reach the city. The music has some of the rhythm and style of the popular leftist Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis and includes these lines:
You wake up early in the morning and work late at night every day No matter how exhausted you are, you can only work harder and harder, So that you can make the ends meet for your family You hate the guys who do nothing but gain the most They wear beautiful clothing but look down on you “Who supports whom?” You question. They cannot understand such reasoning, They always cannot understand such reasoning.
His song “Five Mao” (mao is a denomination of Chinese money), which he adapted from a letter written by one of the migrants, opens with the lines:
I went from factory to factory, hoping for something better deep down in my heart Working my hands to the bone from dusk ’till dawn just for one day’s pay That crazy machine keeps rumbling along while my empty stomach keeps grumbling a song The boss delays our pay, day after day, as I make it through the hungry, lonely nights Ah, my sinking heart! Ah, the road ahead is slow and endless! Ah, my sinking heart! Ah, the road ahead is slow and endless!
Sun’s song “Ode to the Laborer” takes its music from a well-known Korean ballad, and has the lines:
We’ve left our family and friends, We’ve travelled an arduous path We’ve come to live and to work, We’ve come for dreams and to struggle We’re not useless, We have brains and two strong hands We’ve used our hands to build roads, bridges, and skyscrapers Coming and going in the wind and rain, We can’t stay for a moment The sweat pours from our brows, But we raise our heads and press on All our fortune and rights comes from our own hard work Work created this world, the laborer’s life is the most glorious! From yesterday to today to the end of time, The laborer’s life is the most glorious!
Sun gets financial support from contributions, the sale of his CDs, and occasional grants from the Hong Kong branch of the charity Oxfam. Some of this funding is arranged through the help of his wife, Zhao Ling. She has also collaborated on some his songs. Zhao is currently doing research in social work at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Woody Guthrie is finally getting due recognition in this centennial year of his birth – for the depth of his politics, insight and commitment. His legacy lives on, not only in the generations of folksingers he has influenced in the United States, but also in the work of a Chinese migrant musician named Sun Heng. As Sun said this week when asked by e-mail what he thought of the centenary of Guthrie’s birth: “… his music and his spirit inspired me so much.”
For more of the music of Sun Heng, visit the Souncloud page of his “Workers Band”.
Foster Stockwell is a publishing consultant for Chinese publishers and authors. He is also the author of Religion in China Today (original 1993, second revised edition 2007) and Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient Times through the Present (2003). He grew up in Chengdu, Sichuan and currently lives in Des Moines, Washington.
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and staff member at WORT-FM Community Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared previously in various print and online publications. In July 2016, he became publisher of The Progressive.