What is a Vigilante Man?
Have you seen that Vigilante Man? Have you seen that Vigilante Man…
Carries a sawed off shotgun in his hand…Is that…a Vigilante Man?
— Woody Guthrie
The song “Vigilante Man” is one that I listen to often. It has a haunting refrain as it asks the question again and again: “What is a Vigilante Man?”
The song is indicative of the type of mentality that Guthrie was singing about with “Old Man Trump” as well as “This Land is Your Land.” There is a poignant quality to the idea of this champion of the working man simply musing quietly about what the qualities are that make up someone who could perpetrate violence on others simply because they were weaker, or they were protesting, or because of their skin color.
The idea that there is no one quality that makes up a “Vigilante Man” other than the fact he is carrying a sawed-off shotgun in his hand is pervasive in the song. The idea of the song is realized in the verse that alludes to a Mob Mentality. The society that creates a Vigilante Man is also defined by a mob mentality that chases men out who are organizing labor strikes.
The question is asked again and again- What is a Vigilante Man? It’s defined by a society that works to incite violence and, as in Guthrie’s words, leads them to be ‘herded like cattle’ simply because they are poor. The defining answer in this is what makes someone become a Vigilante Man. That is the heart and soul of the lyric. It is not one thing, but an idea running through our society-that you can be a society made up of vigilante men if you choose to think and act with mob violence.
Listening to this old Woody Guthrie song tells us that we always need to be vigilant to guard against those who would strip our freedoms. And being a student of film, and recently re-watching Born Yesterday from 1950, it also tells us that what’s old is new again. The movie and play by Garson Kanin dealt with the corruption that is rampant in the halls of Congress at the highest levels. It was another good indicator that we always need to be vigilant. We should never take our democracy for granted. Nor should we simply mouth the word “Freedom” as a way to define it for everyone in society.
Because fifty or one-hundred years after passing laws that free slaves, that give women’s rights they take for granted, we can find that laws are made to be either broken, or ignored, or simply overturned. And that is a reminder to us all that freedom does not come to us easily.
The question of “What is a Vigilante Man?” is left unanswered in the poetic lyrics of Woody Guthrie. What is unsaid is the most powerful statement in the song. When we can hear this song, and revisit it with a powerful sense of nostalgia, rather than a wave of eerie prescience, then we will know that the ideas of a vigilante, realized in mob violence, are simply historical anecdotes to be told in a history class.
When we hear this song today, we realize that the question remains for all of us to answer: What is a Vigilante Man?