IUPUC Professor Brings Woody Guthrie into the Classroom

September 1, 2020
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Aimee Zoeller, Director of the Sociology Degree Program and lecturer at IUPUC, is passionate about her profession and takes her job very seriously. As a sociologist and a fan of music, she draws much of her inspiration from Woody Guthrie, an American writer, musician, and social rights activist from the early to mid-1900s. Guthrie’s past and his journey through life is amazing, and Zoeller took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about him through a sociological lens.
Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 and grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. He married at the age of 19, and like most people from Oklahoma at the time, he set off to California to find work. While in California, he got a job at KFVD radio station in 1937 playing old-time tunes and original songs. During his time as a radio personality he received feedback from the people he worked with that he was using inappropriate and offensive language towards black people. This was news to Guthrie, as the language he used came from the words he heard his father say during his childhood. After this confrontation, Guthrie made it a point to apologize on air for his behavior.
Guthrie left KFVD in 1944 to embark on a journey as a traveling musician spreading the word of social change across America. Through his journeys he met amazing and talented artists, most notably the country blues artist, Lead Belly, who assisted Guthrie in overcoming the prejudices instilled in him by his father. Guthrie viewed himself as more of an educator than a performer, and used his performances to educate those with the same racist tendencies he once had. 
Despite the troubles of being a traveling musician away from his family, and the opposing political and social climate of the time, Guthrie held on to his goal with an iron grip. His determination paid off, as he gained popularity as a musician, and the message behind his songs touched the hearts of people across the country. Many of Guthrie’s songs regarding social issues grew in popularity, including “This Land is Your Land,” which promotes a theme of equality and opportunity for everyone in America. One of Guthrie’s greatest hits is his song “Deportee,” about migrant workers who died in a plane crash. Guthrie focused on a newspaper article that labeled the migrants as “deportees” in lieu of giving their actual names, which Guthrie perceived as dehumanizing the workers.
Aimee Zoeller was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She grew up in a working-class family and is an avid music fan. However, as a sociologist, she does not just listen to music; Zoeller studies music through a sociological perspective, which brought her to Woody Guthrie. Zoeller made it her mission to learn as much as she could about Guthrie and use that knowledge to educate herself and her students how music can effect social change.
In May 2019, Zoeller made her first visit to the Woody Guthrie Center to attend a conference about Bob Dylan. One of the greatest American performers and activists, Dylan was inspired by Guthrie to dedicate his life to spreading the idea of peace and equality across the world. In that first visit, Zoeller was not able to spend as much time at the center as she would have liked, however, she made two more trips to the Woody Guthrie Center, where she was able to visit the archive exhibit which consists of memoirs, letters, lost song lyrics, and possessions of Guthrie. Each archive represents his passion to expose discrimination and the forces that he felt threatened freedom–one of the most notable pieces being his guitar with a sticker that reads: THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. 
Through her years of research and experience as a teacher, Zoeller has developed a sociology class called “Music and Social Change.” The course looks at the effect music has on society, and studies the lives of artists, their work, and their impact on society. Because of his journey through life, Zoeller uses Guthrie as the cornerstone for the class. With Guthrie’s influence over artists throughout generations, he is an exemplary subject when studying how music can spark social change. 
Woody Guthrie left behind an incredible legacy and is still renowned to this day. Examples of this include the Woody Guthrie Center itself, as well as the musicians who were inspired by Guthrie’s music such as Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, and Chuck D from Public Enemy. The Woody Guthrie Center not only symbolizes Guthrie’s legacy, but is an inspiration to musicians and writers who strive to promote social change. These great musicians carry the legacy that Guthrie left on this world, and they too will give inspiration and hope to future generations. 
Zoeller’s work is ongoing and she continually promotes Guthrie’s philosophy in her classrooms. Zoeller is effectively planting a seed of social awareness in each student who takes her class, and in her own way, she continues the flow of ideas that Guthrie has vicariously given her: being socially aware, standing up for what is right, and fighting back against hatred and bigotry.
While Zoeller and Guthrie have different stories with different backgrounds, they share the same goal in life–to promote equality and educate people about the discrimination people face every day in hopes that one day we will live in a world where everyone will be equal. Despite Guthrie’s death in 1951, his work has helped spark new ideas in people’s minds. Zoeller briefly summarizes Guthrie by saying, “Because he so clearly saw the present, he was able to see the future.”
For more information, watch this video interview with Aimee Zoeller about the impact of Woody Guthrie on society.