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Signs of the Times  •  6 July 2016  •  No. 80

Processional.This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie.

Above: Redwood National Forest, California.

Special issue on
Woody Guthrie

        Woody Guthrie was born in the small town of Okemah, Oklahoma, named after a Kickapoo Native American chief. I knew his music long before I learned he was reared not so far from where I was born. For her wedding one of my grandmothers rode a covered wagon from North Texas to what was then called “Indian Territory.” My other grandparents worked in that same region under the feudal arrangement charitably called “sharecropping.”

        The town of Okemah was founded on land expropriated and reassigned, multiple times, from Native American peoples by the US Government. Okemah is in the middle of the region where Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations in the US Southeast were forced marched (“The Trail of Tears”) following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The town is south of Tulsa, site of a major race riot in 1921 which destroyed what was then the wealthiest African American community in the nation. An hour’s drive west of Okemah is Oklahoma City, site of the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran.

        This land—like much land everyone—bears the contested scars of ownership. This dispute was the subject of many Woody Guthrie songs.

        Along with a number of artists and activists in his era, Guthrie was accused of being a communist. Once, when interrogated about singing at a left-wing rally, Guthrie commented: "Left wing, right wing, chicken wing—it's all the same to me. I sing my songs wherever I can sing 'em." Many have noted the Communist Party wouldn’t have wanted him anyway, given his disavowal of any political doctrine willing to sacrifice actual human beings on the altar of ideals.

        Tragically, Guthrie spent the last decade of his life in psychiatric hospitals, suffering from Huntington’s Disease he inherited from his mother. Little was known about the disease at the time. But his death in 1967 led to the founding of what is now the Huntington’s Disease Society. —Ken Sehested

For more background on Guthrie, see Rob Collins’s “Woody Guthrie: Portrait of a Populist,” Oklahoma Gazette.

Invocation. “I don't think a Christian is worth his salt who has not been called a Communist today. Trying to refute that epithet is about like running for your birth certificate when someone calls you an s.o.b.” —Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm

Call to worship. “Somos el barco, somos el mar, yo navego en ti, tu navegas en mí. We are the boat, we are the sea, I sail in you, you sail in me.” Sosmos El Barco (We Are the Boat),  by Pete Seeger, sung here together with Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, and Ronnie Gilbert

¶ Guthrie used the 1930 A.P Carter gospel tune of “When the World’s On Fire,” for “This Land Is Your Land.”

Hymn of (populist) praise. “When I Rose This Morning,” Fellowship Chorale. 

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 heroizing 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. —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “This Land Is Your Land: Independence Day in light of Woody Guthrie’s enduring question about to whom the land belongs

Confession. “This old house is falling down around my ears / I'm drowning in a river of my tears / When all my will is gone you hold me sway / And I need you at the dimming of the day / You pulled me like the moon pulls on the tide / You know just where I keep my better side. —“Dimming of the Day,” Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson

The title of Guthrie’s autobiographical novel Bound for Glory was taken from the song “This Train (Is Bound For Glory),” an African-American gospel of unknown origin, first recorded in 1922. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s 1939 recording  popularized the song.

Words of assurance. Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen, which ends with a refrain from "This Train."
      “This Train carries saints and sinners
       This Train carries losers and winners
       This Train carries whores and gamblers
       This Train carries lost souls
       This Train dreams will not be thwarted
       This Train faith will be rewarded”

Hymn of intercession.Deportee,” Woody Guthrie, performed by his son Arlo Guthrie.

Preach it.
       “When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around
       Believed what he did say
       But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross
       And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave”
       —Woodie Guthrie, “Jesus Christ

Guthrie’s influence vs. Donald Trump’s arrogance. “Now I ain’t got no politics / So don’t lay that rap on me / Left wing, right wing, up wing, down wing / I see strip malls from sea to shining sea.” —Tom Russell, “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?

Call to the table. “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). In his upside-down kingdom dream, Jesus’ intention for blessing was not to sacralize violence but to draw enemies within Mercy’s reach.” —Ken Sehested, “This Land Is Your Land: Independence Day in light of Woody Guthrie’s enduring question about to whom the land belongs

Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills,” recorded by his cousin, Jack Guthrie, was selected as the Sooner state’s official song in 2001.

The freedom to roam is the general public's right to access certain public or privately owned land for recreation and exercise. The right is sometimes called the right of public access to the wilderness or the right to roam.

            In England and Wales public access rights apply to certain categories of mainly uncultivated land—specifically "mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land." Developed land, gardens and certain other areas are specifically excluded from the right of access. Agricultural land is accessible if it falls within one of the categories described above. Most publicly owned forests have a similar right of access by virtue of a voluntary dedication made by the Forestry Commission. People exercising the right of access have certain duties to respect other people's rights to manage the land, and to protect nature.

            In Scotland and the Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the freedom to roam may take the form of general public rights which are sometimes codified in law. The access is ancient in parts of Northern Europe and has been regarded as sufficiently basic that it was not formalised in law until modern times. Wikipedia

Altar call.
       “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, not any more.”
       —“Ain’ta Gonna Grieve (My Lord Anymore),” lyrics by Woody Guthrie, tune by Jeff Tweedy & Jay Bennett, performed by Billy Bragg & Wilco

The Woody Guthrie Center was formally opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 27 April 2013.

Benediction.Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” Blind Willie Johnson.

Recessional.Hobo’s Lullaby,” Arlo Guthrie.

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “This Land Is Your Land: Independence Day in light of Woody Guthrie’s enduring question about to whom the land belongs

• “Remind us again,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 82

A new collection of annotated book reviews in “What are you reading and why?

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