The Killing of “Two Good Men”

On August 23, 1927, Massachusetts executed Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti. The two admitted anarchists were Italian immigrants executed for the 1921 murder of a person during an armed robbery of a shoe company paymaster.

The Trial and Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti

The fish-peddler and shoemaker had no prior criminal record when they were arrested for the murder.  But they were prosecuted during a period of anti-immigrant and anti-radical sentiment, and many aspects of their trial were unfair.

The judge overseeing the proceedings saw the two men as “anarchist bastards,” but others rallied in support of the accused. At the time of their execution, protests were held at many places around the U.S.

Many still believe to this day that the two men were innocent of the crime.  Also, there have been recent arguments that only Vanzetti was innocent. There is a Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society that works to keep the case in the public eye, and there is an exhibit about the case at the courthouse in Massachusetts.

Woody Guthrie and “Two Good Men”

Many years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, folk-singer Woody Guthrie found some kinship in the plight of the two men. In the mid-1940s, he worked on a project of several songs about Sacco and Vanzetti to tell their story.

One of the songs in the cycle is “Two Good Men.”

Like Guthrie’s song about “Tom Joad,” which we discussed previously, “Two Good Men” is a story song.  “Two Good Men” focuses on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. Although the song is not as complete and detailed as “Tom Joad,” it contains many details.

Some of the details in the song include the names of the judge (Webster Thayer) and the people who prosecuted the two men: “I’ll tell you the prosecutors’ names,/ Katsman, Adams, Williams, Kane.”

In addition to the details of the case, in “Two God Men” Guthrie also focuses on connecting the execution to the labor movement of his day:

All you people ought to be like me,
And work like Sacco and Vanzetti;
And every day find some ways to fight
On the union side for workers’ rights.

Supposedly, Guthrie was unsatisfied with his cycle of songs about Sacco and Vanzetti. Eventually, he gave up on the project.

Fortunately Guthrie’s songs about Sacco and Vanzetti were not lost.  The founder of Folkway Records Moe Asch, who had commissioned the songs, went ahead and released the unfinished product.

Guthrie was probably right that “Two Good Men” and the other songs did not live up to his best work. I prefer folksinger Charlie King’s song about Sacco and Vanzetti with a similar name, “Two Good Arms.” But Guthrie also was right that we should continue to remember and fight against injustices.

{Woody at 100 is our continuing series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie on July 14, 1912. Check out our other posts on Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Centennial too. }

Photo via public domain.

What do you think of “Two Good Men”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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