It’s a constant flow of words. News and information. Whether we are talking to friends, checking Twitter, Facebook or our favorite news sites, there is always information to share. Thoughts, ideas, different perspectives. First there is information about an event or decision, then there is the editorial on that information. Then there are the interpretations and mis-interpretations. Then there are the responses to those interpretations. Then there is passionate support, justified anger and people constantly wondering if they should get involved. Or, if they should just remain dutiful observers on the sidelines.
And then, it explodes. The words become anger, the anger becomes hate, and the hate becomes action. A president gives a speech, and thousands of supporters walk down an expansive lawn under a big sky. They attack the very institution that provides the security and ability for us to all share those angry words in the first place.
Words matter, a reminder that is often shared when a hurtful insult is made or a needlessly sharp criticism is made. Words matter when they inspire people to engage in acts of violence and hatred, but words matter even more when they inspire people to acts of peace and good will. Words matter when they inspire an appreciation of the land in which we live, and the country that serves as home to so many millions of people living lives, working jobs and raising children in an ongoing search for peace, prosperity and happiness.
“This Land is Your Land,” was written by folk singer Woody Guthrie in 1944. It is not the national anthem of the United States, but some have argued it should be. So many of us happily sang this song sitting around the campfire or at elementary school during an assembly, but it was actually written as a protest song in response to “God Bless America,” written by Irving Berlin in 1918.
Guthrie had grown tired of hearing Kate Smith sing this saccharine operatic anthem during World War II, and perhaps he knew all too well that it had been men and women who had fought and died for America. We didn’t need God to bless America as much as we needed every person in America to continue to believe in America, and to work hard for America.
“This land is your land and 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“
In his first draft of the song, Guthrie sarcastically wrote “God blessed America just for me.” He moved away from sarcasm to sincerity. He wrote that America was simply made “for you and me.” Without quantification or qualification, Guthrie does not assign any definition to “you,” to “me,” and perhaps most importantly, there is no mention of “them.” America is for us. If you are here, if you would like to be here, if you need to be here, America is here…for you and for me.
“As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
Saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me”
And America is a beautiful place. Guthrie did not just sing about traveling around America, he would often hop aboard freight trains with a sack on his back as he traveled from coast to coast. He sang for people, he sang with people, he wrote songs that people could sing themselves. As Guthrie traveled and learned, he most certainly got an appreciation of the promise and challenge of America that few others had.
“I roamed and rambled and I’ve 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”
“This Land is Your Land” is as beautiful and perfect as any pop song ever written. The language suggests that America is a land of plenty and opportunity. Just as we have easy access to this wonderful song, we should also have access to this wonderful country. It’s a big place, the result of big ideas, and there’s room for everybody.
“When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me”
This song is almost 70 years old, and has become baked into our national consciousness. We know the words of the commonly known verses as well as we know any prayer. However, there are more verses, verses that are not so commonly known. At its heart, “This Land is Your Land” is an angry song demanding equal rights, support and inclusion for all. Some of the lyrics suggest those expectations, other lyrics state those expectations clearly and unequivocally.
“As I was walkin’, I saw a sign there
And that sign said, NO TRESPASSING
And on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’!
Now that side was made for you and me.”
Read those lyrics how you will. Rich people have more rights than poor people. Nobody has the right to tell me where I can and cannot go. Signs, signs…everywhere there are signs. Though the specific meaning might be up for debate, I think the intent is clear. A sign should not be able to keep us out, because this land was made for you and me.
And then, the anger, protest and expectations become a bit more pointed.
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 wondering’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
You can be here. You can be here in America if you are hungry, or if you are out of work. You can be here if you object to the actions of the government, and you can be here if you support the government.
America is not always going to do its job, and it’s not always going to be easy. People are not always going to get the support they need, the support they deserve. There will be hard times, and people will be left on the sidelines. They will be angry and frustrated. Hungry. Disenfranchised. Maybe they will wonder to themselves or aloud if America is really for them, or not.
Far beyond the short sighted, uninformed response of “love it or leave it,” there actually is a place for everyone, and we have a collective responsibility for everyone. Whatever your need, whatever your perspective, whatever your place…the United States is still made for you and me.
Nobody living, can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Introducing the song at the LA Memorial Coliseum in 1984, Bruce Springsteen said that “This Land is Your Land” was “maybe the greatest song ever written about America” because it recognizes the inherent challenges and conflicts.
As pictured above, Guthrie played a guitar emblazoned with the words “This machine kills facists.” Guthrie believed in democracy, and did not think that authoritarianism had any place in America. I wonder what Guthrie’s response would have been had he witnessed the events of the January 6th, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection. Listening to all the anger, reading all the tweets, posts and op-eds, what would Guthrie have said? Probably, he would have just picked up that “facist killing machine” of his, and played this one perfect song.
There are very few films of Woody Guthrie performing, and none that I could find of him performing “This Land is Your Land.” Instead, I offer a substitution that I believe Guthrie would whole heartedly endorse.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings performed her version of “This Land is Your Land” in 2014, and the song is transformed into a deeply funkified demand for payment. America, you made a promise for services rendered a long time ago, and now that bill is due. It’s time to pay up.
(NOTE: Jones suffered a debilitating stroke on election night, 2016, which she jokingly blamed on Donald Trump. Jones died of complications from cancer and the stroke on November 18, 2016)
This Land Is Your Land
Written and Performed by Woody Guthrie