I’ve decided to go back to weekly themes. It seems I do my best writing when I have a specific topic. So with July 4th around the corner, I thought I’d pick song about America. Enjoy.
In grade school, I seemed to be in a pageant every month. They were mostly historical and Biblical fluff (I went to a Christian school) aimed at entertaining parents and friends, rather proving any intellectual value. Every once in a while we had a patriotic theme. My fellow classmates dressed up as iconic American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Naturally, Washington did not tell lies and Lincoln lived in a log cabin.
As for the songs, they were standard patriotic fare – “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful” -to the applause of the audience.Interestingly, during one pageant we sang, “This Land is Your Land”.
Yes, Woody Guthrie’s anthem was performed by a group of school children. “From California to the New York Island” seemed perfectly innocent, and evoked an image of The American Dream. As far as I can recall, we only sang the first verse and the chorus. The verses where the narrator wanders through “heat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” were left out. We sang it with no sense of irony or contempt. Our rendition of “This Land is Your Land” was as straight an arrow.
As a 5th grader, I didn’t know the song was written by Woody Guthrie and was written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”. Even if I had known those facts, I’m sure the concept would have been lost on my feeble mind. The song seemed just as cheesy as any of the others songs we were forced to sing, and not worth my time.
Years later while listening to The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues, I discovered the familiar chorus on the last track on the album. Why the hell are they covering this piece of shit? I wondered. The Waterboys had sunk to a new low. When I dubbed the album to a cassette, I purposely left it off. The “proper” ending to the album was “The Stolen Child”, not the little ditty that came off as Celtic campfire song.
“You realize this is a Woody Guthrie song?” My older brother asked me once when the song came on.
“Who’s Woody Guthrie?” I asked. “I thought it was a traditional song.”
He was shocked. “No, no,” He replied, with a hint of disgust. “He was a singer in the 1940s. Big influence on Bob Dylan.”
“Oh ok,” I nodded, not really understanding what he meant. I still hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan, so this connection was hardly revelatory. Besides, any type of music made before rock and roll, had nothing to offer me.
It wasn’t until I went to protest the Iraq War that I discovered the true meaning of the song. Thousands of people were gathered in the cold streets of Pittsburgh. It was snowing lightly, but no one seemed to mind. Their minds were elsewhere. As local artists and activists shouted their position from a nearby stage, the crowds cheered loudly. By the time the Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag took the stage, the crowd seemed ready for action. Surely this band would get the momentum going. Surprisingly, they came on stage with an acoustic guitar. “This is a song that I’m sure all of you know,” leader singer Justin Sane announced, launching into “This Land is Your Land”. Suddenly, its lyrics made sense. It wasn’t quite the flag-waving anthem I had previously thought it to be. It was an attack on a Capitalist society, and an out of touch government. “This land is your land, this land is my land” was hardly an invitation. It was a call to arms. This land belongs us, and we will take it back if necessary. As thousands of people sang Guthrie’s words, my attendance in the protest never felt more secure and right. If we didn’t take control and voice our opposition, who would?
Though Guthrie’s song isn’t what most Americans consider to “be patriotic”, for me, it means more than “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”. It offers hope, and possibility. It’s not idealistic and naïve, but rather a rallying cry for those who might not otherwise have a voice. Guthrie is an American icon, because he was able to express his views in song form, even if it wasn’t popular. And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.