Where Music and Politics Meet

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.

This, the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s famous American ballad, is all that most people know of the song. It is repeatedly sung at patriotic events, civic occasions, and celebrations of American holidays.

According to Wikipedia, Guthrie wrote the song “in critical response to Irving Berlin‘s ‘God Bless America,‘ which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent.”

If people know any more of the song, then they know one or two of these verses:

As I went 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 sparking sands of her diamond deserts,
All around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, then 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.

There are other verses, though, that aren’t commonly sung or even remembered. In them Guthrie spoke of the plight of ordinary people caught in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the economic crisis that afflicted the whole nation. These verses are usually left out because of their political/economic message, which were deemed sympathetic to communism.

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that said, “Private Property,”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway,
Nobody living can make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

Another verse, added by Guthrie’s friend, folksinger Pete Seeger, takes the political/social message even further, and includes a Bible reference:

Maybe you’ve been working as hard as you’re able,
But you’ve just got crumbs from the rich man’s table,
And maybe you’re thinking, was it truth or fable,
That this land was made for you and me.

With the political season heating up, Woody Guthrie has been much on my mind lately. Politicians have been quick to use popular songs in their campaigns based on their titles, but ignoring the lyrics. “This Land Is Your Land” was used in 1988 by George H.W. Bush. Guthrie, being long dead, couldn’t complain.

Other choices have been, well, problematic. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot used Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy,” a song about hopeless love. In 2000, George W. Bush was threatened with a lawsuit by Tom Petty to stop the candidate from using the singer’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and was criticized by other performers for using their tunes. (Primary candidate Mike Huckabee was also asked in 2008 to stop using Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”)

As The Washington Post reported,

The most famously misread song may have been Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” During his 1984 reelection campaign, President Reagan praised Springsteen’s “message of hope” during a stop in New Jersey. It wasn’t clear which song, or songs, Reagan meant (and there’s no record of Reagan’s campaign actually playing the song), but many assumed he was referring to “Born,” the title track of Springsteen’s best-selling album at the time. The song, of course, is about the opposite of hope; it’s the anguished cry of a Vietnam veteran, returning home to bleak prospects (“I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”). Springsteen later expressed irritation at being made an implicit part of Reagan’s morning-in-America reelection rhetoric.

Nor is this a phenomenon whose time has passed. Although the election season has barely started, there has already been at least one controversy. Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young (who of course can’t vote in American elections) can still express his opinions of them.

Young objected when Donald Trump’s crew played “Rockin’ in the Free World” during Trump’s trip to the podium to announce his campaign for President. As breitbart.com noted (http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2015/06/23/after-shaming-trump-neil-young-allows-bernie-sanders-to-use-campaign-song/), “an official statement from Young’s camp immediately responded, “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for President of the United States of America.” He had not authorized Trump’s use of the song, though the candidate’s campaign manager asserted that they had paid for the rights to do so. (Rights to use a song can usually be purchased from the music publisher.)

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, folksingers wrote songs specifically about the various issues that arose in elections (“The Draft-Dodger Rag,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” CSNY’s “Ohio,” “National Brotherhood Week”). That song trend was satirized in Tom Lehrer’s “The Folk Song Army” and is rarely seen these days, except perhaps on open mic nights at local bars and coffee shops. The day of protest songs sung by thousands at rallies or played on the radio has largely given way to the shouting or chanting of slogans (“Feel the Bern”) or general feel-good patriotic pop or country-pop songs. “God Bless the U.S.A.” might just replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. (It is easier to sing.)

God, I miss Woody Guthrie! I bet he’d have a thing or two to sing about this election cycle.

By the way, what do you suggest? Let me know what you think would be a good campaign song – for either side.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Where Music and Politics Meet

  1. I suspect the trend from folk song to song title only (the “Born In The USA” debacle) to simple slogan is a result of the same shortening attention span that has lead to sound bite journalism and the ability of sting groups like those that killed ACORN and are now targeting PP to cut together completely false, misleading videos and have no one notice.

    Like

  2. I know the song well. It was one of the first I learned to murder on the acoustic guitar. My favorite line has always been, “But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing.” It’s not immediately apparent what Woody’s saying here until you think about it. (At least, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me! Some people are much quicker on the uptake about this kind of thing than I am.)

    Truly a great song!

    Like

Comments always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s