This song is our song

December 16, 2010

Alexander Billet tells the story of one of Woody Guthrie's most famous songs.

AT FIRST glance, it might seem just another innocuous, sanitized link in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. A gray-haired Wilford Brimley-looking character singing a pop-ified folk song on a massive float of cornucopias sponsored by Ocean Spray. Then comes the realization that the old fellow is none other than Arlo Guthrie singing his father's most famous song:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

And with that, another layer of insult has been added to a song whose radical legacy has been papered over almost past the point of recognition. This was no kernel of hidden subversion among the overload of patriotism and excess; this was corporate whitewashing pure and simple.

It's surprising enough on some level that Arlo--son of the late great Woody Guthrie--would be part of such a brazen display. Forty-five years ago, Arlo seemed poised to follow in his dad's footsteps with his humorous Vietnam-era anti-draft song "Alice's Restaurant." More than a few of Woody's contemporaries found themselves beaming with pride at Arlo's apparent path.

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie

During his father's final years, the young Arlo was treated to numerous lessons in the backyard. Woody, deteriorating fast from the ravages of Huntington's Disease, was at that time battling his own fear of obscurity, and went to special lengths to teach every verse of "This Land Is Your Land" to his son, including the now-famous "lost verses":

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...

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a 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?

Arlo didn't play those verses on Thanksgiving Day. Today's Arlo Guthrie has veered a long way from the bedraggled hippie bucking the establishment. In 2008, the younger Guthrie endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination. Last year, he officially came out as a registered Republican. And though he reportedly "likes" Obama, he's also shown some love for the Tea Party movement.

True to form, it's all been justified in the language of the iconoclast, but in the end, the message is rather clear that Arlo has made his peace with the system the way his father could never stomach.


THE STERILIZING of "This Land Is Your Land" runs much deeper than Arlo's drift to the right over the past several decades. In fact, if McCarthyism would have had its way, then we may not have heard of Woody Guthrie or his work at all.

Though the song was first recorded in 1944, it wasn't released to the public at all until 1956, when the grip of anti-Communism was tight around America's neck. Some, including Guthrie's daughter Nora, have speculated that her father's decision to not record the more radical verses back in 1944 was because of the sense that the Red Scare was just around the corner.

The notion is a bit of a stretch; at the time, Guthrie and the rest of the American Communist Party were firm cheerleaders of the U.S. part in the Second World War. But most folks, including Guthrie, were attracted to the Communist Party not for its support of the war, but because in the 1930s, it had been the largest group putting up a fight in the face of the Great Depression--leading strikes, organizing the unemployed and placing socialism squarely at the front of their struggle. Most of Guthrie's best-known songs were firmly in this vein: "Talkin' Union," "Do Re Mi," "Pastures of Plenty."

In all of these songs, the message was clear: working people will only saved by taking matters into their own hands. Guthrie was annoyed to no end by artists who encouraged passivity among their audience. Chief among these was Irving Berlin, whose "God Bless America" was choking the airwaves by 1940. Says Joe Klein in his biography of Guthrie: "'God Bless America'...was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver's seat. Some sort of response obviously was called for."

That response came in the form of "This Land Is Your Land." Taken in its entirety, the song is a rallying cry for America's down-and-out, a reminder that past all of the machinations of the rich and powerful--the "private property" signs, the forced starvation of working people--the country was undeniably built by the toiling masses. It was these folks who Guthrie thought should run the whole shebang for themselves.

No wonder that Guthrie was fearful of the conservatism that swept the U.S. in the 1950s. Many of his contemporaries--Josh White, Irwin Silber, Paul Robeson, Burl Ives and others--had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the first half of the decade. Some had named names; those who didn't were summarily blacklisted and had their careers ruined. Guthrie was spared the wrath of HUAC, but most likely only because his illness had forced him out of the spotlight.

If not for the radicalism of the '60s, "This Land" may very well have been irrevocably buried beneath the morass of history. Folk revival artists like the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, the New Christy Minstrels, and Peter, Paul and Mary were exposed to the song through the pages of Sing Out! magazine and performances by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Inspired by the rising civil rights movement and growing antiwar sentiment, "This Land" seemed the perfect soundtrack to these artists.

By the time of Guthrie's death in 1967, he had become a legend to the new folk movement. Talk swirled among the New Left of turning "This Land" into a national anthem for the people. It had, in fact become the rallying cry that Guthrie had intended it to be.


BUT AS the struggles of the '60s receded, the prominence of this "new national anthem" made it vulnerable to being sucked up, watered down and repackaged by an establishment eager to regain its footing.

In 1972, it was used by the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. George McGovern. By '75, it had also been used in ad campaigns for Ford Motors and United Airlines. Many of the radicals who had known and been shaped by Guthrie could only sit and watch as his song was twisted into another marketing tool by businesses cashing in on the songwriter's rough-and-tumble popularity.

It was a process aided by an increasing number of ivory-tower academics, who, in the words of Klein, "theorized that Woody was merely a pure-and-simple country boy, seduced by the big-city radicals." It was a cynical and condescending move aimed at inorganically separating Guthrie from the socialist vision that had inspired him to write such timeless songs in the first place.

Today, Guthrie's songs are redone by an endless array of artists who clearly recognize the near-unmatchable influence he's had on popular music. Some of these artists get it; others don't.

What seems universal among them is the notion that Guthrie's songs provide a kind of gutsy, working-class credibility that few other songwriters can aspire to--let alone 40 years after his death! Wilco, Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle, Dropkick Murphys--those are just a few of the artists who have recorded versions of Guthrie's music and been vocal about walking in his footsteps.

And yet the mainstream school of Guthrie-denial--those who seek to put his brilliance in songwriting on a pedestal while wagging their finger at his Communist beliefs--is alive and well today. In a 2004 album review, New York Times writer William Hogeland goes out of his way to rag on artists like Earle, Billy Bragg and Tom Morello, who he accuses of attempting to construct some kind of mythical "St. Woody," and "who sometimes seem nostalgic not for a poet, but for a party hack."

Hearing and respecting Guthrie's work, though, means understanding him warts and all. It means recognizing his Stalinism without defending it, and realizing that the world he envisioned was one run by working people. It means seeing that his incredible catalog didn't somehow come despite his views, but because of them. It means listening to "This Land Is Your Land" knowing that the song was a call to action, not a vapid piece of consumerism.

Maybe today's Republican Arlo Guthrie can't see the forest for the trees, but at least one person on the right can--albeit to laughable ends. This past March, none other than Glenn Beck took time on his televised hate-fest to cite "This Land" as "proof" of Barack Obama's "hidden Marxist agenda." The song was, of course, famously performed by Seeger and Springsteen in front of the Lincoln Memorial the day before Obama's inauguration. That was enough for Beck, who after reading the most radical verses went off on a surprisingly accurate screed:

The song was originally written in 1940, by the way, by Woody Guthrie--communist! It's a song about a progressive utopia land with no ownership of property. Because some have it and some don't. And we all think of this as an American song.

Damn right. It's a song that comes from the other America--the one made up of the laboring majority when they dare to fight back. And just like the "progressive utopia land" that Beck fears with every fiber, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song well beyond the confines of profit and ownership. It doesn't belong to American Airlines, Ford, Macy's, Ocean Spray or even Arlo Guthrie. It belongs to those of us who take its words seriously.

First published at the Society of Cinema and Arts Web site.

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