< American Icons: This Land Is Your Land

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Friday, October 01, 2010

This Land Is Your Land


Nora Guthrie: I'm looking at you right now and I'm saying, Kurt, this land is your land, I'm talking to you.

This is Studio 360 I'm Kurt Andersen and this is Nora Guthrie –daughter of the man who wrote the probably the best known modern American folk song .

NG: When woody wrote this, who was he looking at? Who was the you he was talking to?  
NG: And i see all those faces of the people that he writes about, the poor, the white, the black, the Indian, the everything that makes up this country, and he looks at each one of them and he says this land is your land.   This Land is Your Land has become a kind of unofficial national anthem and today in Studio 360 we'll trace its history, all the way back to Okema, Oklahoma, where Woody Guthrie was born. But let's start a little more recently.  On a cold January day in 2009, after two years campaigning all over the country   
[Barack Obama: ...preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the united states...]  Barack Obama took the oath of office and became the first non-white president  of the United States.  At his inaugural celebration Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang This Land is Your Land.  [Springsteen: We'd like you to join us, in perhaps the greatest song ever written about our home... with the father of American folk music, Pete Seeger... Pete: you sing it with us, we'll give you the words...]
This same song was once called “communist” and anti-American.
 Nora Guthrie: All I could do was look up and say, "Dad, there's a song for every moment in time, this big one is your song"... This song has been waiting around for that moment, that's what I really felt.

So, how did it start? When I metnion Woody Guthrie, what do you picture? Maybe a dust storm

[cue dust storm]

The sound of a freight train.

[cue freight train]
 
 a hobo in one of the box cars, playing his harmonica.

[cue hobo]

But actually, that was an image Guthrie had… created. The reality was a little different.

Ed Cray:
Ed Cray 07: The Woody Guthrie you hear on records is not the real Woody Guthrie. That’s ahhh…Coon huntin' language.

That’s Ed Cray, author of  the biography Ramblin Man, the life and times of Woody Guthrie.

He puts on an exaggerated drawl. At home he wrote and spoke in excellent English and with the faintest, faintest of drawls.

Woody Guthrie was from a middle class family that had fallen on hard times.

His father was a real estate operator. Woody once said that he lost… in the post WWI crash… his father lost a farm every day for 50 days. So that from prosperity they sank into real desperation or poverty.

But his middle class background wasn’t the only contradiction he embodied.

Ed Shannon: He sings in a variety of songs about how important it is to have a job if you’re a family man, and he was a terrible family man!

 Ed Shannon is a professor of literature who’s written about Guthrie.

… in his autobiography in fact, he completely ignores the fact that he’s married. He’s got a wife and 3 kids at the time he writes the book and they never even get a mention!

Shannon even argues that Guthrie played a character.

 This working class kid, who doesn’t have any book-learnin’ and is sort of thinking off the cuff and saying whatever pops into his mind, and fighting the power and standing up for the little guy, that’s a really appealing character! And I think, if it's not uniquely American, it’s certainly something that Americans admire, that urge to say “I did this all by myself and look, you could do it too!”

In 1941, leaving his family behind in Texas, Guthrie came to New York City.

Pete Seeger still remembers what Guthrie was like back then.

[Seeger: come in, sit here by the fireplace, ]

I went to visit him in his old wooden cabin on the hill overlooking the Hudson. A house he built himself. He’s 91 years old now.
 
[Seeger: I need to get my hearing aid…]

Pete Seeger met Guthrie at a midnight benefit concert in New York for the California farm workers.

[Seeger: Woody was the hit of the evening, with his cowboy hat shoved in the back of his head, he would tell stories and then sing a song, “you know it’s a very dry state in Oklahoma, I once saw three telephone poles chasing one little dog” Then he’d sing “if you aint got the do-re-mi boys, if you aint got the do re mi… he was always cracking jokes, and yet he was basically very serious.

22-year-old Pete and 29-year old Woody became close friends

Seeger: He once said though, that man Seeger is the youngest man I ever knew. He don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chase girls… he’s weird.

And here you are 70 years later.  He was a young man then as well.

Seeger: He was seven years older than I was.

Guthrie had just written This Land on his way to New York. Hitchhiking, hobo- style.

And with his thumb stuck out in the February wind, he was going across Pennsylvania and when he went in to get a cup of coffee he heard Kate Smith singing God Bless America on the jukebox.

Which had just come out in 38'.

Seeger: That's right it was a hit song.

 [ Kate Smith ]

And he made up some verses… as I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway, I saw below me that golden valley, God blessed America for me.

God blessed America for me? Nora Guthrie keeps the original draft of the song in the Guthrie archives

KA: with the chorus here, that he’s also crossed out again and again, instead of this land is made for you and me it was “god blessed America for me.”

Nora: At first he wrote it almost as a parody of the Irving Berlin song, that was kind of country humor at the time, “well god blessed America for me – HA, HA, HA you know”  and then later on he said it’s kind of more serious than that, this is my own take on the country.

You know it's basically you can look at this land in different layers, in one simple way it’s really like a biography. Like when he writes “I roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps” he had just been roaming and rambling and following his footsteps. Well, where was he rambling? Through the diamond deserts and across the wheat fields waving. So strictly as an autobiography it's really really interesting to just pause and say, "oh this isn’t poetry, it’s journalism."

KA: Yes, it’s kind of stylized journalism, yeah.

Nora: And at the bottom he wrote, with and asterisk he'd write, “all you can write is what you see.” And that becomes kind of a mission statement for him you know, and for all the people that kind of followed in his footsteps, that’s what he would tell all the young songwriters, all you can write is what you see.

KA: He has, In this more or less original copy he has the line about the relief office and the line about the sign says private property, those didn't end up really making the song,  why do you think they got edited out?

I don’t think they intentionally got edited out for any overt reason.  I think that they published kind of a half version, with the three verses in a children’s songbook, a music teacher's song book.  And the publisher was the one that really liked this song his name was Howie Richmon.  And he was the one who took on Woody's work when other publishers wouldn’t cause the blacklist was already on, we were in the beginning of the McCarthy period.  
 
But I think at the time, the thing that the publisher did kind of smartly is… you know sometimes it’s really important to move into the center of culture. … we can’t always isolate ourselves in the outskirts.


Nora:, and so this was an example of that. I think it was kind of done innocently and song never would have been sung by kids if it had all 6 verses. I mean who the hell sings all 6 verses anywhere of any song in any school?

And that is how the song became popular. It never had commercial success, never really played on the radio, but kids were singing it all over the country...I remember singing it in grade school in the early 60s.

[Pete Seeger]

And Pete Seeger, who'd been blacklisted as a member of the left-wing Weavers, went on the road with his banjo singing Guthrie’s songs. Ed Cray:

Ed Cray-Pete singing Woody's song: When Pete Seeger had to make a living after being blacklisted.  He began concertizing wherever he could find an audience- day care centers...sympathetic churches, whatever. Pete...at every concert on the road like that, Pete would always sing a couple of Woody's songs, sometimes the children songs, sometimes This Land…

Seeger: and if it’s a good song, other people will pick it up and sing it. I don’t know where I got that idea, I guess I got it from Woody…  

One of the other people who got the idea was Bob Dylan, who, just like Guthrie, had put on an accent and come to New York City from the middle of the country to make himself new.

Nora Guthrie says Dylan was the one who make her father famous.

Nora: He got famous ONE day and the day was when Bob Dylan’s record came out and it had Song to Woody on it.

[Bob Dylan, Song to Woody.
Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song

Nora: Baddabim-baddabum.

Dylan, contd.:… about a funny old world that’s coming along]

Nora: You know he had been at the house, he had visited us, he had spent time with my dad at the hospitals etc.

Now, people knew the song This Land is your Land, because they had grown up singing it, but they didn’t know anything about the writer of the song. So that’s when it all started coming together.

[Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I’m a-sayin’ an’ a-many times more
I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough
’Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done]

Sharon Jones: How do you say his name? Gumtrie? Gum-.  I can never say his name Woody Gumphrey.  Mr. Gumphrey. I should have said Woody [laughs]…  

One of my favorite versions of This Land was recorded by Sharon Jones in 2005 and used in the movie Up In The Air.

You know, I have to be truthful to you. When I first heard it I never paid attention to the song because it was like .. a folk song, you know [puts on southern accent] this land is your, lick-dig-a-boo- , I may as well say, that was a white people song, you know.

Jones was born in Augusta Georgia when Jim Crow segregation still ruled.

[Guthrie singing, This Land is you land…]

And then as you get older you look at the lyrics and the true meaning of what he wrote the song. You know, he's writing about he’s a poor person, he was like everybody don’t have land, and I look at myself, I’m fifty-four years old I don’t have no land. You know and I'm like that’s what he was talking about, you know, talking to the poor people.

The main thing is he may have been white and I'm black but you know he felt the same thing that I'm feeling.

Like... when I’m on stage I don't, I can't concentrate on it I just feel it you know.  So as soon as that baaam baam, some times I do the thing like put my hand over my heart, you know like, the flag you know.

[music]

And then I come back out [sings] This land is you Land…

And then from there I'm just feeling the music, and I'm just feeling the people I'm looking in their faces.  And I'm on a feel thing then, then that’s that feel, that’s that soul, that’s that, I don’t even think of the lyrics they just flow out.

To me this song is like, I’m not African, but my ancestors are African, and I am American and then you can come back and say, we didn’t walk over here, we didn’t get on ships and bring our family. We was brought over here in chains you know! And half of us didn’t make it you know, and those that did were the strong ones.  And those ones that made it are the ones that, we're from our ancestors.  The generation after generation you know we helped built this land, so, this is our land, you know I am American.  You can call me Afro-American, black Afro-American.  We've been called some kind of everything, Negro, colored, black.  "Don’t call me black!"  Just call me... As long as you, you know who I am.

[Jones singing]

Not just Bob Dylan and Sharon Jones but so many musicians have carried the Woody Guthrie torch.  Even outside the United States.

All told we came up with about 15 different versions.

That's Jorge Arevalo, the curator at the Woody Guthrie archives, he says that the song has been used for all kinds of purposes around the world, but that they all share one idea.

There are so many interpretations, but they all come down to reverence for, not property, but the idea of shared ownership.   

Except for maybe ONE.
 
[play Israeli version, up and under]
 
The one by Jerusalem Taverners. The group's Singer, Shay Tochner grew up listening to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and then formed a band which became very popular in Israel:
 
Shay Tochner: But at a certain point we tried to get to more Israelis that didn’t understand English. So one of the songs we thought about was This Land Is Your Land.
 
This Hebrew version is about different stereotypes within the Israeli population.
 
Shay Tochner: The first character is the Kibbutnik, guy who lives in a kibbutz.   
Second one represents the religious sector, and the third verse was like the American immigrant who comes to Israel just to enjoy life of Televiv.

Song…
 
And one of the verses is like of the settlers which go the West Bank

And then the chorus of the song:
 
The chorus of the song … this is our land… it is meant for us… from our ancestors directly to us… this is the land for us.

But nowhere in the song does it mention Arabs.
 
Shay Tochner: No, there were no Arabs mentioned in the song. It was an Israeli show, it was for the Israeli for the Hebrew speaking audience.
 
 
[more song]
 
There was not the intention when the song was written or performed there was no political issue into it.

Jorge Arevalo
 
JA: You can understand why this idea of land, if you are the you know Jewish Nation, you know a race that was denied community, never having their own state. So you can understand why [there is] definitely an Israeli version a Hebrew version, but by the same token; a Palestinian version makes perfect sense.
 
And the song has been used by people in one country who are political enemies.  Mikael Wiehe is sort of like the Swedish Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen. He wrote a Swedish version of the song in reaction to right-wing, anti-immigrant extremism in the 1990’s.
 
Mikael Wiehe:  I got some Nazi threats, and this culminated in some right wing guys trying to kill me. They came at night and placed a bomb outside the house I was living in and tried to blow me up.
So Mikail Wiehe thought aside from trying to stay safe, what can I do about this?
 
MW: I’m a singer, so I called up some of my friends and we made a big concert in the capital of Sweden in Stockholm.  Then I translated “This Land into Swedish.

[Song]

What Woody Guthrie does is to take some important landmarks in the United States, and I do the same when I translate his song into Swedish I take some important landmarks from the West part of Sweden, to the East part of Sweden, to the South part of Sweden, to the North part of Sweden.  This land was made for you and me.

Funny thing is the people who tried to kill Mikael Wiehe were impressed.
 
MW: My brother warned me when I had made this translation, and said be careful so the song doesn’t end up hands of the wrong people… and it has happened that some of these Neo-Nazi parties published the lyrics of the song on their homepage.
 
Jorge Arevalo again.

Jorge Arevalo: America has always been multicultural in essence, but only now is Europe facing more external forces. And even though it’s not presented to be nationalism, songs can be used for so many different purposes….
 
Because the original lyrics of “This Land” never do say who you are, or who I am.  Or for that matter, who made this land for you and me.  Woody Guthrie left those open for all of us to imagine.  And that’s why the song can so easily take on new lyrics and meanings.  
 
[Keith Secola version up and under]
 
Like Minnesotan Keith Secola’s version, sung in the native language Ojibwa.
 
[Keith Secola version up and under]
 
And that openness to interpretation, the universality, is why Guthrie’s song isn’t some dated relic – it still feels meaningful alive to us now.

Contributors:

Pejk Malinovski