Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This Land is Your Land

Several liberal blogs have already covered Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and the choir singing the "subversive" or "missing" verses of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" at the pre-inauguration concert. However, NPR has a very good piece on the song, its history and the missing verses, and I finally got to see the video of the performance. It just makes me happy.

I saw Pete and Arlo Guthrie perform about six times in the 80s and 90s, mostly together, in one case a solo performance by Arlo at the Smithsonian. Going to see them was a family outing. During that period, Arlo played "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" again for the 20th anniversary, adding some funny stuff about Nixon. By the 90s, Pete was bringing his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger out more often to help him sing, and Pete would just lie down on the stage between songs, propping himself up with his elbows. He and Arlo would trade off songs, bantering about what to sing next. They'd include some familiar favorites and add some new pieces, and always insisted on plenty of audience participation. They were very friendly, cheerful events.

In any case, they always sang those "missing" verses and got an enthusiastic response. Arlo used to tell a funny story about "This Land is Your Land" in concert, about him going to school as a kid and everyone else singing the song and him not knowing the words. His sister Nora confirms that part in the NPR story. In concert, Arlo would add that he went home upset, and his dad taught him the lyrics, but gave him one up by also teaching him all the other verses not everybody knew.

Art can say more than one thing at once, and, well, that's all the easier with multiple verses. As the NPR story relates, Woody Guthrie:

…was irritated by Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," sung by Kate Smith, which seemed to be endlessly playing on the radio in the late 1930s. So irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it "God Blessed America for Me" before renaming it "This Land Is Your Land."

It helps if you know something of Woody Guthrie's life and other songs, but if you listen to all the verses, it's pretty clear that Woody Guthrie is questioning the status quo, the powers that be, and championing the downtrodden. But I don't think the entire song is sarcastic, nor bitter. He loves the land itself, and he loves the people. If the song's a retort to anybody, it's to the people who think patriotism means obedience to authority, or think that some citizens aren't "real" Americans. You could sing the song as an indictment, the bounciness of the tune in tension with that attitude, but I think the song is deeper and more multilayered than that. Earlier this week, we were discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. and his critique of America as a great country that did not always live up to its own ideals. I hear much the same in "This Land is Your Land." It contains a similar critique, and suggests a similar vision of what America can and should be – a physically beautiful land that could be more inclusive, generous, and kind.

Plus, there's no denying the joy that all the performers and the crowd have singing the song in the version below. And speaking of MLK and the civil rights movement, it's no accident that Pete Seeger was one of people who popularized "We Shall Overcome." He's just a truly great American and a national treasure, and it was great to see 89 year-old Pete grinning up there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the middle of it all, as he's always been.

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)


Jess Wundrun said...

I love that our people ARE the mainstream now.

Nearly every day this week a story on NPR has made me weep in my car either going to or coming from work.

And I do not mind.

Connecticut Man1 said...

I have got a lot of respect for Seeger and the Guthries. But you can add Billy Bragg in the mix as musicians out there doing their stuff - living it and breathing it - for the cause. I am not just talking about the Democratic party. Those guys are union, they are poor, they are peace, etc. everything liberals fight for.

Seeing the Boss play with Seeger is an awesome Bonus.

Connecticut Man1 said...

Side note to that: I wish I had seen Arlo in concert...

Batocchio said...

Connecticut Man1, you're right about Billy Bragg. I assume you've got some of the Mermaid Avenue albums, where he wrote music for some Woody Guthrie lyrics?

And isn't Arlo still touring? It would've been cool if he had been at the mall concert, too.