By Ken Trainor
This Saturday is Woody Guthrie's centennial. He was born on July 14, 1912 — Bastille Day, which seems appropriate for a singer/songwriter famously dubbed the "Dust Bowl troubadour," who emerged from Depression-era Oklahoma and defiantly pasted a label on his guitar that read, "This machine kills fascists."
Guthrie is best known for his song, "This Land is Your Land," which, over the past seven decades, has evolved into a populist national anthem, a democratic alternative to more grandiose "anthymns" like "God Bless America."
According to Wikipedia, Guthrie grew weary of Kate Smith's famous rendition of the latter, which dominated the air waves in the late-'30s, early-'40s. Reportedly, Guthrie found it "unrealistic and complacent." He wrote this song in reply.
I thought about that last Wednesday, sitting in the stands at the OPRF High School Stadium awaiting the Fourth of July fireworks and listening to the patriotic soundtrack piped in over the (much improved) sound system. The playlist included both songs, a testament to the enduring and endearing character of each.
But only one managed to incite the gaggle of energetic, early-teen girls sitting nearby to sing along, and that was Woody's. And why not? It's bright, catchy and everyone knows the lyrics of the famous refrain: "This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me."
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps,
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
While all around me a voice was sounding,
"This land was made for you and me."
It's the perfect rallying cry for a people trying to regain their balance and sense of belonging. Significant maybe, maybe not, that Guthrie's centennial should coincide with a national election, which, reduced to its core, is about whether this land belongs to you and me or, increasingly, to the 1 percent. In fact, there has never been so clear a choice, thanks to the Republican Party's paint-me-in-the-corner extremism. The 1 percent corner.
Do we meekly hand our country over to the overlords or do we stand up and sing, collectively, "This land was made for all of us"?
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting, as the fog was lifting,
"This land was made for you and me."
One could quibble, of course, about whether this land was "made" for anyone, but rest assured it will "belong" to someone else if we don't start making our voices heard.
As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said, "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway,
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Guthrie's anthem says a nation is never more important than its people. The people and the land are inseparable — inalienable you might say. The people are the country.
All good national anthems should end with a question that challenges its adherents. "Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Or does it wave over a different kind of land — one characterized by economic servitude and fearful fealty to the rich and powerful?
Guthrie's song ends with a similar query:
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
"Is this land made for you and me?"
We're at a crossroads for sure. We can turn left (not a chance), turn right (we'd have to be insane), remain stuck in the road (more gridlock) or move on down the road (our only real option). November's election is an opportunity to unify and empower ordinary Americans, which fits right into Woody Guthrie's credo of songwriting:
"I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
"I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world [even] if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.
"I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
Now that's worth singing about.
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