This land is our land

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

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?

Good question.

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.


Reader Comments

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Tomorrow's Kulak  

Posted: July 16th, 2012 10:52 AM

@Patriot: Ken quoted the post-McCarthy lyrics published in 1956. Here are the original 1940 lyrics to the 'no trespassing' verse: "There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; Sign was painted, it said private property; But on the back side it didn't say nothing; This land was made for you and me." Gives an onimous twist to:"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." Hello Mao.

Patriot from Oak Park  

Posted: July 14th, 2012 8:44 AM

Thanks for printing all of the verses and asking us to think about this form of patriotism. I love the traditional "God Bless America" and have always been a fan for having "America the Beautiful" as our national anthem. BTW, when are you people going to stop attacking eachother? Can't you find the good in these words and in this column? Ken says that taking pride in yourself and your work is something to sing about. Can you relate to that?

paul from oak park  

Posted: July 12th, 2012 10:06 PM

Maybe they stopped sweeping the streets to honor Woody.

Tomorrow's Kulak  

Posted: July 12th, 2012 2:26 PM

The title given this article does seem a chilling perversion of the seemingly unifying and inclusive nature of the song, and yes, does call to mind the ideological and territorial ambitions of some "Progressive" leaders of the 20th century.


Posted: July 12th, 2012 11:52 AM

Thanks for the support Anonymous. My point was with regard to the language of dehumanization, which is wrong in all cases.Only a Progressive mind could twist my clearly stated point into a comparison between the wealthy Americans and Holocaust victims. Perhaps it is my fault for being conservative in the sense that the words that I choose to use have traditional meanings that are intended to express complete ideas; nothing more or less.

Anonymous from Oak Park  

Posted: July 12th, 2012 8:46 AM

To Mr/Ms "This Machine...": your use of a gay slur in replying to JKDIV makes his point for him. Clearly blind to the!

This Machine Kills Fascists  

Posted: July 12th, 2012 3:11 AM

LMAO @ teabagger JKDIV's grotesque framing of capitalist oppressors as an oppressed class akin to Jews killed in the Holocaust. Rightwingers truly have no souls.

Brent from Oak Park  

Posted: July 11th, 2012 8:12 PM

Thanks for reminding us Ken, please tell the Farmer's Market group to feature an All Woody morning. Heck, I might just get my ol' Gibson J 45 down and show them some Woodie songs!

Brent from Oak Park  

Posted: July 11th, 2012 8:10 PM

Much of the beauty of Woody's work can be found in its simplicity. Learn 3 guitar chords and you can play most of the 2,000 songs he "made up", many can be done with 2 chords. Must listen to his Library of Congress Recordings by Folklorist Alan Lomax. Wood wasn't a great commercial success while alive, and really didn't want to be, but what an observer! A must read is " Bound for Glory" his autobiography. I think Jack Kerouac must have been influenced by it.


Posted: July 11th, 2012 2:01 PM

Ken, Sing all you want but all I'm hearing is the same old broken record you keep spinning. So God Bless America is too grandiose for you - the morose Guthrie, the Communist apologist, is more your style. You mention economic servitude & fearful fealty to the rich & powerful. You should know that which you speak, which you left out, is the rich & powerful government - every man's boogeyman.


Posted: July 11th, 2012 10:41 AM

Ken refers to the "1%" like the Progressive heroes of the past referred to Jews, blacks, Irish, kulaks, gypsies, bourgeoisie, etc... Following a grand tradition of rhetoric, Ken employs dehumanizing language to target a class of people that is characterized as parasitic, unproductive, undeserving, and exploitive. How can those most sensitive to racist, sexist, and homophobic language, be so blind to the similarity?

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: July 11th, 2012 12:39 AM

Ken, people don't really get it, and I know Obama is nothing special at all, and in this great land of ours, there has to be something better than thinking you can't vote for this guy, but then this guy isn't much better. Bush said it best for the rich. "This is a new America". That new America of his brought wealth 10 thousand fold to his buddies in the arms business and his buddies in air port security. The rich get richer, and you know the rest.

119 Days Until The National Nightmare Is Over  

Posted: July 10th, 2012 11:09 PM

Dream On Kenny Boy ! Tick Tock

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