Tag Archives: protest music

Keeping the hoping machine running

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

On an afternoon in February 1940 a songwriter, tired of what he saw as the blind patriotism of the then radio staple “God Bless America“, sat down in his New York City hotel room and typed out a series of verses that he’d worked on over the preceding months.

The writer was Woody Guthrie and the result was his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” (which he’d originally, and sarcastically, titled “God Blessed America For Me”).

In the 80 or so years since, the song and its lyrics have become some of the best known and most sung lines in the American songbook.

But “This Land” was a slow starter. Having written the song Guthrie sat on it for four years, during which time he performed around New York city, including on the subway (above), and served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. When he returned to the song to record it, in 1944, he dropped two hard-hitting verses, one concerning private property and the other hunger.

(The latter was the most biting verse in the song, containing the lines “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 this land was made for you and me?”)

This was unsurprising perhaps. After four years of war Guthrie no doubt felt the need to cast his song, written in anger, in a more unifying light. And so the version he recorded for Moses Asch in March 1944  is one laced with hope.

On the day that’s in it, hours before a new and divisive president is inaugurated in Washington, D.C., its lyrics are worth reading. Because if you can’t keep the hoping machine running, what can you do?

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

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

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

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.

 

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A 70-year-old note to a new President

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.

That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.

In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.

This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.

Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.

Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”

Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.

In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.

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