Clover’s Literary Corner: Happy Birthday, America!

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Woody Guthrie

If you attended an Independence Day celebration anywhere in the U.S. this year, including that held at Claudius Crozet Park on July 1, you probably heard or even sang along with “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). Written in 1940 and first recorded in 1944, this iconic folk song has become a standard part of American patriotic celebrations, performed over the years by the Weavers, Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, & Mary, and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. Also translated into multiple languages, it was sung at Barack Obama’s inauguration by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, and Lady Gaga included a verse in her 2017 Super Bowl performance! How did this beloved American folk anthem come into being?

One of the song’s primary strengths is its simplicity and directness. The down-to-earth diction is appropriate to the audience addressed. The singer allies himself with the common man with the repetition of “you and me,” emphasizing that we both belong to the same humble, plain-spoken, cash-strapped, working class, who share the same American dream. This Everyman character is neither driving a car nor riding a horse: he is walking, strolling, and rambling. This “you and me” makes no distinctions—it is inclusive of all races, classes, genders, and ethnicities. The simple, jaunty tune—originally inspired by a Carter Family song—adds to the song’s mood of celebration and welcoming acceptance. This message of inclusion is expressed in terms with which we can all agree. In all of his songs, Guthrie strove to give voice to those who had been disenfranchised.

Guthrie paints an inspiring portrait of America’s beauty and vastness. From west to east, from north to south—the whole shebang, he proclaims in colorful, specific images—belongs to the people to be shared, not hoarded by a select few. Its “diamond deserts” and “golden valleys,” topped by an “endless skyway,” represent riches that belong to all of us, not just to large landowners and wealthy corporations. The national park movement grew out of the same spirit. Guthrie also conjures the quintessential American character—a strong and independent laborer who “roams and rambles” free of limits or constraints. The rolling dust clouds are surely an allusion to the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which Guthrie had experienced in Oklahoma, and “the fog was lifting” may symbolize the New Deal and other social programs that were being established to protect workers. Can the chanting “voice” be interpreted as any other than God’s? Who is also the one, by implication, who “made” the land “for you and me”?

As originally written, “This Land is Your Land” was more political than it eventually became and is remembered today. Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which was being sung everywhere by Kate Smith and others. His original, sarcastic chorus was “God Blessed America for Me.” On paper, Guthrie included the following two verses, which may be seen as a reaction to the severe income inequality in America at the time, and the widespread suffering of the Great Depression.

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me./ The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’/ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing./ God blessed America for me.”

“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,/ By the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering/ If God Blessed America for me.”

But these verses were omitted from Guthrie’s 1944 recording, perhaps deemed too dangerous in the anti-communist atmosphere of that time. Guthrie replaced “God Blessed America” with the more subtle, and less personal, “This Land is Your Land” as the chorus, and a classic was born.

Born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 and named after progressive, Democratic candidate and soon-to-be-president Woodrow Wilson, Guthrie had a difficult childhood. At the age of 14, his mother was institutionalized with Huntington’s disease—an hereditary neurological disorder that was not understood at the time—and his father moved to Texas to pay off debts, leaving Woody and his brothers on their own. He showed an early affinity for music and his father taught him Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes; he also learned to play blues and folk music from family friends. As Guthrie describes in Pastures of Plenty: a Self Portrait (a collection of his stories, poems, and other writings edited by Dave Marsh and published posthumously in 1990), “Okemah was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns”—a short-lived golden age.

Married at 19, Guthrie had to leave his wife and three children during the Dust Bowl to seek migrant farm work out west with other “Okies.” “Moneyless and hungry, Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked his way to California, ….developing a love for traveling the open road” that stayed with him all his life (www.woodyguthrie.org). In Los Angeles, he found a job playing “old time” traditional songs on a radio station and became friends with John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath (1939). In 1940, he moved to New York City and kept writing, eventually earning enough to bring his family there. Recording for the influential Folkways Records, Guthrie also joined Lead Belly, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, and others to form the Almanac Singers, which took up social causes such as union organizing, anti-Fascism, peace, and singing songs of political protest and activism. “The Almanacs helped to establish folk music as a viable commercial genre within the popular music industry” (ibid.). In the 1950s, they re-formed as the Weavers, who helped to popularize Woody’s songs and became leaders of the folk music revival of the next two decades. During World War II, Guthrie served in the Army and Merchant Marine. He married twice more and fathered eight children, including noted folk musician Arlo Guthrie. He was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease in 1952 at age 40, which rendered him unable to perform, and died in 1967.

Woody Guthrie’s influence on 20th century folk and rock music cannot be exaggerated. In addition to writing thousands of song lyrics—including “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” and “Frog Went A-Courtin”—he was one of the first to popularize many traditional folk songs such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Wildwood Flower.”  Considered an American folk hero, his music has inspired generations of performers including Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Chapin, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia, and Tom Paxton. Folk festivals and other events are still held around the country in his honor. If you were lucky enough to have tickets to Woody Guthrie’s American Song at Heritage Theater this week, you got to hear this and many more of his songs performed live. Besides its historical significance, this song is just plain fun to sing!

This Land Is Your Land

By Woody Guthrie

Chorus:

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

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me the golden valley
This land was made for you and me

Chorus

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
All around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

Chorus

When the sun came shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me

Chorus

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