Issue 348 – February 6, 2017
This Land Is Your Land
I did not watch the Super Bowl football game on Feb. 5, 2017. Half-time entertainer Lady Gaga seems to have gotten favorable reviews from lots of folks. I did catch a news clip of her singing a portion of Woody Guthrie’s popular song, “This Land Is Your Land.” It is a populist, kind of get-together-and-sing-Kumbaya song.
However, as the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, . . . here is the rest of the story.
I made the following statements about the history of the song, “This Land Is Your Land.” in my 2012 eBook, WOODY GUTHRIE: HIS LIFE, MUSIC AND MYTH (Chapter 5):
“On Feb. 23, 1940, Woody wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ while living with friend and fellow folksinger Burl Ives at the Hanover House in New York City. He wrote it to counteract what he considered the mindless sentimentality of ‘God Bless America,’ penned by the great Irving Berlin. That song just really irritated him something awful.
“Slowly but surely he worked out the words of his own song and, as usual, simply matched the lyrics up with an existing song. In this case it was the melody of a gospel song, ‘Oh, My Loving Brother,’ a melody that was also borrowed by the Carter Family for their song, ‘Little Darling, Pal of Mine’. Woody titled his song, ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and pretty much forgot about it until April of 1944.
“When the song finally surfaced and was recorded, it only included the first four verses (see below). And it quickly gained traction. Today the first few verses are sung by people all over the world, sometimes with a few adaptations to fit the Canadian or Japanese or Irish or whatever culture. It has been recorded by virtually everyone under the sun, from Bing Crosby to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In the 1960s President Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the first to wonder if maybe it should replace our national anthem. And various big-name corporations, including United Airlines and the Ford Motor Company, have used bits of it for their sales pitches on TV and radio.
“Here is how those first four verses read:
1 This land is your land, This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
2 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.
3 I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
4 When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
“The problem with most of the admiration for this song is that the four-verses-only version hides or at least ignores the whole point of the complete song. With all of its verses intact, ‘This Land is Your Land’ stands as a Marxist chant for communal property. Here is how those last three verses read:
5 As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
6 In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
7 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.
“Now, go back and read the first line of the first verse. Doesn’t it take on a much darker meaning? It should because this song is, in fact, radical leftist Guthrie’s most clear challenge to life as most American’s know it.
“He understood that private property rights were, more often than not in the United States, used by land-owning corporations to put down the workers. They and their henchmen, the courts and law enforcement, constantly trampled on workers’ constitutional-granted rights of freedom of speech and freedom to assemble.
“So he was calling on people to join the fight against the concept of private ownership of property which, historically, has been the lynchpin of American politics and economics. Woody reasoned that he was taking the high moral ground in advocating that all Americans should share equally in America’s wealth and property.
“Keep in mind, too, that one of the reasons Guthrie wrote this song was to protest the idealism of the big hit song of 1939-1940, ‘God Bless America.’ And it is in verse 6 that he makes the point that the America he saw, from sea to shining sea, was filled with poor and unemployed people standing in welfare lines. And he felt that capitalism and its innate greed were responsible for the awful situation in which there was a great gulf between the bankers and the guys digging ditches or even those who just wish they had a job of any kind. So nothing would change—the poor will continue to be with us en mass—until we change capitalism to communism. And, though not stated in the song, it was his belief that the labor movement—and unions, in particular—could accomplish that goal.
“Was Woody a Communist Party Member?
“Was Woody Guthrie a member of the official Communist Party or was he just a sympathizer on the outside looking in or was he just a guy who sympathized and identified with poor, hard-hit people and sought help from any source?
“Guy Logsdon expressed his point of view when I interviewed him in 2006: ‘Woody loved the United States of America. He loved Oklahoma. And he loved Okemah. He never wrote anything bad against them. He wrote against greed and anything having to do with the suppression of innocent people. If that makes him a Communist, then Jesus was a Communist. Woody was the poet philosopher of the people, the voice of the ordinary person.
“’However, Woody was not radical enough to be a communist. The Almanac Singers, some of whom later became stars as a group called The Weavers, wrote and performed pro-labor and anti-war songs. You know Franklin Roosevelt had a program to rebuild the economy and get production and prices stabilized. It involved killing every fourth cow and plowing under every fourth acre. So the Almanac Singers recorded a song called, ‘Plow Under Every Fourth Soldier’ in protest to the war. That offended a lot of people.
“’And the public sentiment changed radically when Germany waged war against Russia. So the Almanac Singers dropped that song from their programs very quickly. And they started writing and performing anti-Hitler songs.
“’When Woody went to New York City, he was in awe of what they were doing. And he sometimes attended meetings of the Communist Party but, as Pete Seeger has often said, ‘Woody was not a Communist. The Communist Party was a tightly structured organization. And Woody Guthrie wouldn’t join anything like that, because his nature was too independent and unstructured.’”
“Perhaps so. But as we have quoted previously, Woody made that admission or assertion of membership himself. And he did it in what my dear ol’ English teacher at Fillmore (California) High School—Mrs. Percy—would call a simple declarative sentence: “The best thing I did in 1936 [he got the actual date wrong; it was 1939] was to sign up with the Communist Party . . . ” (see Chapter 4.)
“When all views are heard, it seems clear that Woody Guthrie was at the least a solid sympathizer and supporter of the Communist Party. He was a man of his times, and those times were very hard for the working class. So whether he was a card-carrying member of the Party seems immaterial today. And it seems to me that, in the final analysis, Guthrie really had more faith in the unions than he did in Communism. In 1944 he said, ‘I live union. I eat union. I think union. I see union. I walk it and I talk it. I sing it and I preach it’ (Quoted by Ed Cray, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie , page 283).
“Well, as I said, he filed the song away and pretty much forgot about it for several years. But it would finally end up as his signature song and in its four-verse form one of the most sung songs in the world.”
One more thing. The big news right now is about our immigration and deportation policies (or lack thereof). It is old news, really.
Woody Guthrie had a big place in his heart for the frequently abused immigrant workers and their families. He spent a great deal of time traveling around to make-shift worker’s camps to listen to their problems and to encourage them with his songs.
In 1948, an event happened that triggered a great deal of anger in Woody. The U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Department had chartered a DC-3 airplane to deport back to Mexico both illegal immigrants and those Mexicans whose work permits had expired. They left Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 28th with 28 such deportees on board, plus the pilot, a co-pilot, a guard and a stewardess. The plane crashed in a ball of fire near Los Gatos, California.The news reports mentioned the staff members by name and said 28 deportees were also killed. No mention of their names, leaving the impression they were of no importance.
Guthrie took that as a personal insult and an outrage. He went into a writing frenzy, pouring his heart and soul in a song he titled, “Deportees” (also known as “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”):
Plane Wreck at Los Gatos
(also known as “Deportees”)
by Woody Guthrie
The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees”
My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
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.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?
Sad to say that the practice of devaluing other people is still alive and well. We often find fault with those who are different from ourselves — morally, culturally, racially, religiously and politically. The list goes on.
Now, friends, if you look at this thing strictly logically and scientifically (not morally or religiously) the woes and injustices to the poor, the weak and sickly and the disenfranchised should be of no concern to those of us who are winners in the lottery of life. After all, scientist Charles Darwin preached the survival of the fittest as being in the best interest of the world. So why should one glob of atoms (a human) give a flip about another glob (another human)? You know the routine: (1) Look out for Number 1; (2) What’s mine is mine and I’m after yours; (3) The real “Golden Rule” is that whoever has the gold rules; (4) Greed is good; and (5) Don’t get involved.
Well, . . . if you buy that premise, then it is kinda irrational to do otherwise, don’t you think? Maybe that’s why you’re never seen anywhere a hospital founded and funded by the American Association of Atheists. That’s why there are no major philanthropic foundations operated by the American Humanist Association. That’s what the Society for Humanistic Judaism sits around gazing at their navels.
Thankfully, however, there are people of goodwill and generous acts of kindness in every group and country. Concern for others, whether a friend or a neighbor or an enemy, is still alive and well.
For example, loving concern is a fundamental theme in the sacred Jewish texts. Here is a sampling from Exodus 23:1-9: “(1) Don’t spread rumors. Don’t plot with evil people to act as a lying witness. (2) Don’t take sides with important people to do wrong. When you act as a witness, don’t stretch the truth to favor important people. (3) But don’t privilege unimportant people in their lawsuits either. (4) When you happen to come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has wandered off, you should bring it back to them. (5) When you see a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you and it’s lying down under its load and you are included not to help set it free, you must help set it free. (6) Don’t undermine the justice that your poor deserve in their lawsuits. (7) Stay away from making a false charge. Don’t put an innocent person who is in the right to death, because I will not consider innocent those who do such evil. (8) Don’t take a bribe, because a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. (9) Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” — from the COMMON ENGLISH BIBLE (used with permission)
Christians, too, recognize their duty and honor to serve others who have hit hard times. John the Baptist, who was in prison at the time, sent word to this new teacher named Jesus and asked him for some proof that the was the longed-for Messiah. Jesus did not cite as evidence that he had formed a large anti-Roman army, nor that he had a large political campaign war chest, nor that the Who’s Who of Israel were his backers. Amazingly, Jesus told the messengers, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who are crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5, CEB)
A lawyer with the Pharisee sect of Judaism tried to trap Jesus one time by asking him what the greatest commandment was in the Law of Moses. Jesus said, ” (37) You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. (38) This is the first and greatest commandment. (39) And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:37-39, CEB)
It is clear in both Judaism and in Christianity that love for others–not just a good feeling but positive, practical help–is fundamental to religious faith.
The apostle James chided his peers by saying, “(2) Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. (3) Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, ‘Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.’ But to the poor person you say, ‘Stand over there’; or, ‘Here, sit at my feet.’ (4) Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
“(5) My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? (6) But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? (7) Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
“(8) You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:2-8, CEB)
That, my friends, is why you see hundreds of hospitals and universities and homes for the needy founded by and funded by the faith community. Highly respected Jewish hospitals and Christian hospitals are found across America, as are homes for the homeless and abused. Back in my old stomping ground, Oklahoma City, we had the Baptist Hospital, Deaconess Hospital (Methodist), and Mercy Hospital (Catholic), each of them a fine facility caring for anyone who walked through the door. Other religious organizations work every day to help migrants with legal work or with learning English, or helping pregnant women save their babies from abortions, or rescuing young men and women from sex traffickers and drug dealers. And the list of good works goes on and on.
“This Land is Your Land” is a nice song title and sorta give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. In fact, I have personally adapted it to create songs for the people of Rwanda (“Rwandans, This Land Is Our Land”), for the people of Honduras (“Hondurans, This Land Is Your Land”), and for the people of Ireland (“Ireland Is Your Land). View videos of those songs and 50 others on my “Stan Paregien’s Studio” on YouTube at:https://www.youtube.com/user/CowboyStan/videos
My point is this: it takes that “good feeling” and $5.00 to get you a cup of java at Starbucks. Fact is, it is up to you and to me to look for opportunities to honor God by doing good wherever we go and by teaching others to do the same.
So if you are looking for hope and purpose in your life, please take a serious look around you. Observe how your neighbors are living. Is it the Believers who are more happy and fulfilled . . . and busy helping others . . . or is it the Non-Believers? There are exceptions, of course, for no one is perfect in practicing their philosophy of life. But my 75+ years of experience has shown me that people of faith actually believe that history is headed somewhere and they are not just sitting hopelessly on a spinning earth.
[NOTE: My eBook, WOODY GUTHRIE: HIS LIFE, MUSIC AND MYTH, is available in seven popular formats at: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/StanParegien . You’ll find over a dozen more of my eBooks there as well. And before long there will be another one on the list, right now tentatively titled MANATEE COUNTY, FLORIDA: FACTS, FOLKS AND PHOTOS. Stay tuned.]