On a recent trip to Atlanta, I saw a stage production of the "Woody Guthrie's American Song," a musical charting life in the Depression-era United States through Guthrie's music. The show is bursting with rousing performances of songs from across the Guthrie catalog and is narrated by a diverse cast of women and men, people of different classes and ethnicities, all of whom represent Guthrie and the America he knew. Compiled, his songs amount to a history lesson, with every single one demanding what I like to call "active listening." I had long had an appreciation for Guthrie's music and for "This Land Is Your Land," but it wasn't until I saw and heard the song performed in the context of this show that I realized how truly profound and powerful it is. The goosebumps all over my arms and the lump in my throat were evidence that it had stirred my soul and captured my imagination in ways that "God Bless America" never can and never will.
The pomp and circumstance of the nation's patriotic songs defined the past weekend's Independence Day holiday perhaps as much as our newfound thirst for security. Such songs are typically played with pride and fill our hearts with a vision of America through its landscapes, its individualism, its triumphs, its freedoms -- the kinds of things that tend to stir people's rawest emotions. For me, though, where America makes the most sense is in the words of a song written by Guthrie, a man who loved his country but wasn't afraid to ask hard questions about it.
In 1952, Woody Guthrie recorded "This Land Is Your Land" at the twilight of his career, when the Huntington's disease that would kill him fifteen years later was already taking a heavy toll on his body. He had spent nearly two decades traveling the country, establishing both his legend and the kind of resonant legacy that has inspired everyone from Bob Dylan to the youngest of today's singer-songwriters. Like many Americans after the Depression, Guthrie had left the Dust Bowl for the promise of work in the rapidly developing West. Along the way, though, he learned firsthand that a better future was more elusive than he might have once thought, particularly for those who were a generation or two removed from the massive influx of Gold Rush opportunists. Soon, his rambling, personal songs became his way of making sense of the world as he knew it. They became his journal of America -- of its working families, its migrant farmers, its forgotten and disenfranchised, and its eternally hopeful. There were absorbing songs like "Pastures of Plenty," "Do Re Mi," "Deportee," "Grand Coulee Dam," and "I Ain't Got No Home." And then there was "This Land Is Your Land."
The first verse of the song is as familiar as any American song ever
"This land is your land
This land is my land
To the New York island
From the redwood forest
To the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me."
"This Land Is Your Land" is one of those uncommon songs that is both proud
and critical. It acknowledges America as the kind of place that could both welcome
and -- paradoxically -- turn its back on people at the same time. Guthrie was
often accused of being unpatriotic, of being sympathetic to "un-American" ideals,
of not being dedicated enough to the "American way of life." But in truth, he
was an ardent believer in the principles upon which the country was founded --
individual liberties, community spirit, freedom of opportunity, equality, democracy
-- the same principles that have long beckoned people from around the world. Indeed,
his patriotism was incontrovertible. But he wasn't blind. He could relish the
majesty of America's "Gulf stream waters" and its "diamond deserts," but he could
also take issue with its "no trespassin'" signs and express concerns for the hungry
people in "relief office" lines. Given the still-lingering political climate,
it may come as no surprise that the protests of the final three verses of "This
Land Is Your Land" were often left out of the song and have been all but forgotten
over the years. But when he sang in the final verse, "Nobody living can ever
stop me / As I go walking / That freedom highway," there's no mistaking what
he was living for or how American he considered himself to be.
Since September 11, we've heard a lot of talk about whom America is "for" and what is supposedly means to be patriotic. In spite of our fears and sometimes in direct affront to our biases, this land -- as Woody Guthrie said it best -- still exists for "you and me," regardless of who "you" or "I" happen to be.
Wood Turner lives in Seattle and is the editorial director and publisher
at GoodThings, Inc. (www.goodthings.com).
GoodThings' weekly international e-magazine -- The GoodLetter -- features personal
stories of positive and constructive things that are happening at non-profits,
companies, and at the grassroots.