This Land Is Your Land

Independence Day in light of Woody Guthrie’s enduring question about to whom the land belongs

by Ken Sehested
4 July 2016

        The fireworks started early, long before the night’s dark background provided illuminating dazzle, testimony to the pyrotechnics expert on the afternoon NPR hour who said he still prefers the “big boom” type over the advanced visual displays.

        My wife retired early to our basement apartment to escape the roar. I always shudder on Independence Day for the dogs who shiver in fright at the noise.

        Every year the major networks compete on this evening for viewers tuned in for the liturgical assurance of patriotic songs, “bombs bursting in air,” celebrity cameos, and the inevitable hero-izing of troops. The latter urge is understandable, given the agonizing affect of hundreds of veteran suicides every month.

        Yet there still seems to be little awareness of the connection between military necessity and our nation’s consumptive habits—the latter symbolized by the annual hotdog eating contest on The Fourth, in New York’s Coney Island, this year’s winner setting a new record of 70 wieners+buns devoured in the 10-minute contest.

        According to the DC Park Police, the fireworks display in our nation’s capital has never been canceled because of weather.

        My tradition on The Fourth is listening to all the versions of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” I can find online. I especially like the two “lost verses” rarely heard when the song is performed. One of them, from Guthrie’s original 1940 lyrics, goes like this:

        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.
        This land was made for you and me.

You have to remember the song was recorded just as the Cold War’s anti-communist fever was ascending.

        The other “lost” verse is one that calls out the church more than the state:

        In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
        Near the relief office – I see my people
        And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
        If this land's still made for you and me.

        You may be surprised to know that Guthrie appropriated an existing gospel tune by A.P. Carter for “This Land Is Your Land.” The Carter Family’s hymn, “When the World’s On Fire” was written and recorded in 1930.  Guthrie was one in a long line of musical bards who used or adapted existing tunes to new lyrics. It’s not quite true that Martin Luther used beer hall tunes for his Reformer hymns; but the practice—long established before copyright laws—was common.

        You may also be surprised to know that Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” (originally titled "God Blessed America for Me") as a reaction to Irving Berlin’s patriotic hymn “God Bless America,” first performed by Kate Smith on Armistice Day in 1938, against the backdrop of looming war clouds in response to Nazi and Fascist belligerence in Europe.

        It’s interesting, too, that an earlier song also titled “God Bless America,” by Robert Montgomery Bird in 1834, contained these lines:

        God bless the land, of all the earth,
        The happy and the free.
        And where's the land like ours can brave
        The splendor of the day
        And find no son of hers a slave?
        God bless America!

        Once you recover from the gasp-generating irony of this line—And find no son of hers a slave—there is a valuable lesson to be learned, particularly as to why “This Land Is Your Land” can become a widely-celebrated song once the “lost verses” are excised.

        It is this: Extolling the vision of the Beloved Community of which Guthrie sings, without also attending to existing patterns of access to its bounty, easily becomes an exercise in sentimentality. Even worse, it becomes an ideological disguise to hide the truth about our nation’s thoroughly undemocratic and unequal conditions.

        It’s not just that the gap between vision and practice, between aspiration and implementation, don’t add up. It’s that structural forces are in place which heighten, rather than hinder, the divide. The “grumblin’ and the wonderin’ if this land’s still made for you and me” is more than petty envy.

        Moreover, when it comes to the question of God blessing America, Scripture is pretty clear. Of the 41 occasions when the word “bless” is used in the Newer Testament, only twice is it an imperative—and neither involve God: In Jesus’ instruction to his listeners, “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28) and Paul’s echo of the same: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). [1] In his upside-down kingdom dream, Jesus’ intention for blessing was not to sacralize violence but to draw enemies within Mercy’s reach.

        “Hey, Woody Guthrie,” Bob Dylan later wrote in “Song to Woody,” the world “seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn. / It looks like it’s dying, and it’s hardly been born.”

        I don’t know if Guthrie knew one of God’s old-fashioned covenant stipulations in Torah, but he would doubtless be pleased if he did: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). Guthrie, a friend of “aliens and tenants,” would have opposed the modernization of that (among many other) texts.

        Of course, Guthrie lyrics have not been immune from mongrelizing. My wife reminded me of a middle school field trip she chaperoned many years ago. During the drive the kids began singing “This land is my land, this land’s not your land / I’ve got a shotgun, and you don’t got none / If you don’t get off, I’ll blow your head off / This land was made for me and mine.” All in humor of course, with adolescent giggling. That’s how it usually starts.

        Living as we do in the shadow of the steeple, and with refined clarity of what God does and does not bless, Woody Guthrie deserves the last word, this one from one of his less well known songs, “Ain’ta Gonna Grieve (My Lord Any More):

        Many a faith’s too easy shaken
        Many a heart too full of fear
        Many an eye is too mistaken
        Grievous to my savior dear
        Ain’ta gonna grieve my lord any more

[1] Ched Myers, “Mixed Blessing: A Biblical Inquiry into a ‘Patriotic’ Cant.” Download a free copy of this essay.

[2] Listen to this performance by Billy Bragg & Wilco.

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