This Land is Your Land

by Henry on January 19, 2009

Mike Kazin in an email (published with his permission):

Perhaps you gotta be steeped in left history to get excited by this or be Joe Klein—But the only time I broke down in tears watching the big concert today was when Pete Seeger, all 89 years of him, started singing the two “radical” verses of This Land Is Your Land that almost always get cut when the song is sung in public, or in countless elementary schools across the nation (pasted below). I bet Pete was thinking, “This is the way Woody wrote it and so I’m going to make sure the whole country hears it.” How long before some right-wing blogger mentions that this song was written by a member of the
Communist Party—whose best buddy and fellow comrade made it to the Lincoln Memorial to bring it all back home?

When you add this to all the encomia to King and to Rosa Parks and to Lincoln the Emancipator—well, the left’s definition of patriotism is now dominant—only six years after anti-war posters reading, “Peace is Patriotic” sounded absurdly marginal. Change I can believe in…

“As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress passin’
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Chorus

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.”

{ 65 comments }

1

Matt 01.19.09 at 4:21 am

We sang at least the first of those (and maybe the 2nd, I can’t remember) in my grade schools w/ our music teacher. She actually had us sing a lot of hippy songs that I didn’t really understand in 1st and 2nd grade or whatever- “one tin soldier”, “puff the magic dragon” and a lot of others. It’s funny now when I think back on it. I don’t know if she was trying to teach us something or if she was just a hippy and only liked those songs or what. (they were fun to sing, at least.)

2

geo 01.19.09 at 4:27 am

Very nice, but shouldn’t it be a little harder to get a lump in one’s throat after weeks of mediocre appointments to the major posts in Obama’s cabinet? Liberals’ hopes were raised in 1960 by JFK’s style and gestures, but in the end he was nothing much to cheer about.

3

JennyL 01.19.09 at 5:27 am

Arlo Guthrie told a great story at his concert at the Kennedy Center (7 or 8 years ago, I think) about how everyone in his new elementary school knew the song except for him, so he went home and had Woody teach him all the words.

But yeah, a beautiful moment.

I also quite liked the Gay Men’s Choir singing on “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

4

Ben Alpers 01.19.09 at 5:41 am

Some of what’s going on here is the kind of domestication of radicals from our past that is typical of our political culture. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Dr. King, but while many will remember the “I Have A Dream Speech,” few will recall the powerful questioning of war and capitalism itself that marked King’s last years.

The radical verses of “This Land” have undergone something of a revival in recent years. They’re prominently featured in Kathy Jakobsen’s beautiful picture book of the song, which our kids grew up on and which, since we moved to Oklahoma, is a standard gift we give friends of ours when they become parents.

Certainly it’s better for those verses to be sung. Perhaps some listeners who haven’t heard them before will reflect on the meaning.

But the cynic in me fears that the first verse reproduced above is now singable precisely because nobody anymore–at the very least nobody in the incoming administration–takes seriously Guthrie’s call to eliminate private property. What was once inspiring (or threatening, depending on one’s perspective) is now a kind of museum piece.

5

Joey 01.19.09 at 5:46 am

I’m not even there, but I teared up just a little bit just watching it on the internets:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-PCpRWqXv8

I would like to add that version of the “sign” verse Pete Seeger sang today, which is at 2:42 at the link above, had lyrics that are, to my mind at least, considerably more radical than the “no trespassing” version, which which I was more familiar, that was quoted above by Mike Kazin. Seeger (and the whole choir!) sang instead:

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

Wow.

6

Joey 01.19.09 at 5:54 am

I don’t think the song is a museum piece. It’s true that nobody today wants to eliminate private property. But songs like this are part of the lefty cannon not because we are all unreconstructed communists, but because we think it’s powerful to say that private property rights are not the panacea that dominant conservative ideology takes them to be. When you sing about how “the other side” is “made for you and me,” one thing you can mean is that we need to scale back private property rights for the common good. At least that’s how it sounded to me when my folk-singing friends and I used to sing it.

It’s true that most lyrics just wash right over most people. But when you have canonical texts, and people learn them, every so often somebody will start thinking about what the words mean.

7

Miguel 01.19.09 at 6:15 am

Earlier today, I had the concert on the radio in the background. When I heard “This Land is Your Land” come on I joked to me friend via IM about the extra lyrics. I knew they’d be left out.

I wish I had listened more closely. I’m happy they were included though I feel like a goof-ball now.

8

nick s 01.19.09 at 7:26 am

My one sadness is that too many people will remember the fucking awful JibJab take. And my hope is that people will take to singing “This Land Is Your Land” during the seventh-inning stretch.

while many will remember the “I Have A Dream Speech,” few will recall the powerful questioning of war and capitalism itself that marked King’s last years.

I don’t agree with that assertion, and here’s why: lots of people make it. Remember that the sabre-rattling run-up to the Iraq invasion took place in early 2003, around the time of the holiday to commemorate Dr King. In that context, lots of people rediscovered “Beyond Vietnam”. Once you have the mainstreaming of the meme that nobody remembers what MLK Did Next, then you’re over the hump.

Oh, and anticipatory liberal disappointment is not new either. If the members of the Dave Spart Five could just do what comes naturally and declare the Obama presidency a complete failure already, we can get on with doing what we can to assuage it.

9

Paul 01.19.09 at 8:05 am

Grumblin’ and wonderin’ are what Americans do best and bitchin’ too…A lot of people (it seems) have some unrealistic expectations of what BHO can or will be able to do. His actions,or lack thereof, will determine his place in history and shape his legacy. He seems to want to pattern himself after Abraham Lincoln (and that is good), but his own character and ability will determine if he measures up to the Great Emancipator. The honeymoon period will , I expect, come to an end soon enough when Obama begins to tackle some major problems at home and abroad. Remember there are some Americans and foreigners out there who do not want him to succceed for asundry reasons.

10

mk 01.19.09 at 8:24 am

Actually he sang the verse not with ‘no tress passin’’ but ‘private property’

11

ajay 01.19.09 at 11:11 am

Grumblin’ and wonderin’ are what Americans do best

I resent that. Compared to the British, Americans are strictly second-division cynical grumblers.

12

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 01.19.09 at 12:07 pm

Tsch, typical. You wait ages for grumblers and then they all turn up at once.

13

jonst 01.19.09 at 12:10 pm

” a hippy (sic) song”. Deep sigh.

As to the assertion “It’s true that nobody today wants to eliminate private property”. No, just private losses.

14

Ben Alpers 01.19.09 at 1:40 pm

I should have been more clear. I don’t, in fact, think the song is a museum piece at all. I fear, however, that it’s now ok to sing the previously excised verses because most people will experience the song as a museum piece. Despite our current economic crisis, our President Elect and Democratic Congressional leadership are still somewhere to the right of Teddy Roosevelt when it comes to questioning capitalism.

15

tom 01.19.09 at 2:05 pm

Reminds me of David Byrne”s lyric, “I don’t care how impossible it seems, but everything is free.” The People own the Federal Lands that Bush-through execute order-opened up to drilling and mining and clear cutting; the trillions of dollars in TARP, etc. ad nauseum. We own the governement at every level. So, why are we the people not in control. Left, Ryght, center are not owned by anyone.

16

Barry 01.19.09 at 2:16 pm

nick s (re: MLK):
“I don’t agree with that assertion, and here’s why: lots of people make it. Remember that the sabre-rattling run-up to the Iraq invasion took place in early 2003, around the time of the holiday to commemorate Dr King. In that context, lots of people rediscovered “Beyond Vietnam”. Once you have the mainstreaming of the meme that nobody remembers what MLK Did Next, then you’re over the hump.”

I don’t recall hearing about ‘Beyond Vietnam’ back in 2003, and I was hanging around on plenty of liberal, if not leftist, blogs.

17

jacob 01.19.09 at 2:56 pm

What struck me about the YouTube video of the song is how old Pete Seeger (turning 90 in May) looked, but how he got a great big grin when he sang the verses in question. For the other, more familiar bits, he sort of stood there, encouraging people to sing, but mostly being quiet himself. But for those two verses, he voice was clear and loud and clearly jubilant.

18

Steve Balboni 01.19.09 at 3:13 pm

Thanks for sharing this. As I wrote on my blog, reading this story gave me goosebumps. Pete Seeger is a national treasure and the fact that he was asked to perform at all is, I think, very telling about the social conscience of the man we just elected to lead us and the people that he has chosen to surround himself with. On my desk sits a famous picture of Woody Guthrie, cigarette falling out of his mouth, guitar hanging there with the the saying “This Machine Kills Fascists” prominently displayed. Woody and Pete used the power of song to organize workers, to protest racial discrimination and to bring a social conscience to the world.

This is indeed a time of great hope for our nation. This land was made for you and me.

19

Joshua Holmes 01.19.09 at 3:32 pm

Pete Seeger is a national treasure and the fact that he was asked to perform at all is, I think, very telling about the social conscience of the man we just elected to lead us and the people that he has chosen to surround himself with.

Indeed. BTW, when do we start bombing Pakistan again?

20

jennifer 01.19.09 at 4:47 pm

In my Kindergarten classroom, we still sing those verses. The kids prefer Sharon Jones’ rendition of the song (in which those verses are included).

It’s a sad statement on patriotism that factual observations and critical thinking (we use the Jakobsen book and the song to start a unit on working together and our community) feels radical.

21

The Modesto Kid 01.19.09 at 5:11 pm

(hee-hee) The video of Seeger singing about private property has been removed from YouTube due to a claim by H.B.O. that that snippet of song is their private property. (I’m sad I wasn’t tuned in yesterday!)

22

ben wolfson 01.19.09 at 5:39 pm

Oh but look, it’s just popped up again.

23

mom 01.19.09 at 6:14 pm

Matt,
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

24

Steve LaBonne 01.19.09 at 6:23 pm

Liberals’ hopes were raised in 1960 by JFK’s style and gestures, but in the end he was nothing much to cheer about.Bingo- Camelot II is exactly what we’re looking at here. Lots of style, lots of swooning by easily snookered liberal intellectuals- but precious little progressive substance. Even the warmongering looks as though it will be at a pretty similar level.

25

harry b 01.19.09 at 6:41 pm

ajay — compared with the rest of the world the Americans may, indeed, be second rate. But compared with us, surely, they are third rate at best.

26

marcel 01.19.09 at 6:42 pm

ajay wrote “Grumblin’ and wonderin’ are what Americans do best

I resent that. Compared to the British, Americans are strictly second-division cynical grumblers.

You misinterpret the word “best” here. It does not mean, “better than anyone else (grumbles and complains)”. Rather, it means “better than they do anything else.”

27

P O'Neill 01.19.09 at 9:02 pm

One winger is going with the HBO owns the broadcast — ergo hyprocrisy! line of attack.

28

The Modesto Kid 01.19.09 at 10:36 pm

That’s a pretty silly argument — the only party the hypocrisy charge could conceivably apply to is HBO, not really (to my knowledge) an object of left-wing adulation to begin with.

29

Steve LaBonne 01.19.09 at 10:40 pm

The wingers wouldn’t know an actual argument if it bit them on the ass, so they go with whatever they imagine will piss off liberals (unaware that the only emotion they’re provoking is wonderment at their stupidity.)

30

John Emerson 01.19.09 at 10:41 pm

“This video has been removed by the user”.

HBO owns Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen’s inauguration performance of Woodie Guthrie’s song.

This land is their land. They don’t even bother to pretend.

I have to admit that the brazenness of restricting access to this particular performance of this particular song on this particular occasion still boggles me. Obviously I need outrage knobs that go up to twelve instead of the standard-issue elevens.

31

LFC 01.19.09 at 10:44 pm

geo@2 (and Steve @24):
JFK was something of a disappointment on various domestic issues. However, I for one am glad that he (and not Nixon, say) was in the White House for those 13 days in October, 1962.
And btw, thanks for this post and the youtube links.

32

John Emerson 01.19.09 at 10:45 pm

I apologize for trying to politicize a work of art. Those guys all just wanted to make people happy with beautiful music, but people insist on reading messages into it.

33

LFC 01.19.09 at 10:48 pm

@30: If you search for ‘Pete Seeger’ on youtube, you can find a video of the performance that is still up, or was a few minutes ago. (It appears to be a clip from German or maybe Swiss TV, judging from the German caption.)

34

Steve LaBonne 01.19.09 at 10:53 pm

However, I for one am glad that he (and not Nixon, say) was in the White House for those 13 days in October, 1962

And I’m equally glad that McCain won’t be sworn in on Tuesday so that he could finish destroying the economy and start wars with a few more countries. Still, at some point we’re going to need something better than merely “least worst” if we’re to to stop our accelerating material and moral decline.

35

novakant 01.19.09 at 10:53 pm

Couldn’t they have thrown in a couple of genuine GenXers, seemed more like a baby boomer party to me. And how did Jon Bon Jovi get an invite?

36

Cryptic ned 01.19.09 at 11:00 pm

We would have voted for you if it were possible, Steve LaBonne. I swear we would have.

37

John Emerson 01.19.09 at 11:00 pm

Musically speaking, I don’t care — I don’t even have sound on the system I’m on. I’m just completely boggled by the blatantness of the symbolism. It’s such low hanging fruit. Maintaining one’s cynicism is usually harder work than this.

38

Steve LaBonne 01.19.09 at 11:03 pm

We would have voted for you if it were possible, Steve LaBonne. I swear we would have.

Good God, I should hope not. Anyway, if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve. ;)

39

DivGuy 01.19.09 at 11:06 pm

Liberals’ hopes were raised in 1960 by JFK’s style and gestures, but in the end he was nothing much to cheer about.Bingo- Camelot II is exactly what we’re looking at here. Lots of style, lots of swooning by easily snookered liberal intellectuals- but precious little progressive substance. Even the warmongering looks as though it will be at a pretty similar level.

Liberals’ hopes were also raised in 1964 by winning a huge victory and passing a wide variety of leftist and center-left legislation. I don’t think it’s crazy to hope that Obama could be LBJ, except with a withdrawal from Iraq.

That would in no way be a president whom I find blameless – he’ll surely still be an advocate of various imperialisms – but he would also be the best president since FDR. Which is more than “not worst.”

40

Steve LaBonne 01.19.09 at 11:11 pm

Liberals’ hopes were also raised in 1964 by winning a huge victory and passing a wide variety of leftist and center-left legislation.

There was a very specific, and very sad, reason why that was possible. Let’s just say that no matter the potential gain to the country I don’t want to see Biden taking office the way LBJ did and riding a similar wave of sentiment.

41

Adam Kotsko 01.19.09 at 11:48 pm

I’m with the winger guy: Pete Seeger should studiously avoid participation in any event or situation that involves private property. Otherwise, he just doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.

42

Righteous Bubba 01.19.09 at 11:55 pm

How many times has Pete Seeger loaned his banjo to Jonah Goldberg? ZERO TIMES.

43

gmoke 01.20.09 at 1:44 am

The 50th anniversary of Bonneville Power Authority happened while James Watt was head of the Department of Interior. At the ceremony, there was no mention of Guthrie nor use of the 26 songs he wrote for the project under Federal contract, including”Roll On Columbia”, “Pastures of Plenty”, and “Grand Coulee Dam”.

I hope Watt was watching on Sunday.

44

geo 01.20.09 at 1:55 am

We would have voted for you if it were possible, Steve LaBonne. I swear we would have.

Oh yeah? Well, didja vote for Nader, at least?

45

Luther Blissett 01.20.09 at 4:27 am

My favorite version of the song, from a live performance at Amoeba: Sharon Jones.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIKU8O58-Yk

Why Young Jeezy and Will.i.am are at the inauguration and Sharon Jones isn’t is beyond me.

46

sab 01.20.09 at 5:53 am

My father in law drove a delivery truck when he was fourteen to help feed his family. It’s totoally disturbing to see that we are back in the same economic climate. I do a lot a of temp work, and I’m working with single mothers whose fourteen or fifteen year old kids are working not for pocket money or college money but to put food on the table.

Pete Seeger is a national treasure and shouldn’t be out in this weather, but he sure seemed up to the job. That’s one heck of a voice that his grandson has, by the way. I’ll keep replaying it until HBO yanks it. Wow.

47

vinnie the p 01.20.09 at 5:56 am

You don’t have to be a communist to think that America’s stunning scenery and rich national resources are treasures to be husbanded for future generations. Indeed, this is the logic behind the National Parks System and countless other government programs.

48

Lisa Small 01.20.09 at 10:46 am

No, the verse sung by Seeger is the original verse, not the whitewashed (but still upsetting to the Right) version with “no trespassing.” Here it is:

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

Seeger also modified the “relief office” verse to change the last line to “whistling.” I don’t know why he wanted it watered down; the original words are much sharper: “Is this land made for you and me?”

It did my soul a world of good to hear it, even so. Thank you, Pete.

49

DivGuy 01.20.09 at 1:31 pm

There was a very specific, and very sad, reason why that was possible.

That’s an extremely simplistic reading of 1964. What mattered was that LBJ maneuvered a liberal, filibuster-proof majority in Congress. Barack Obama is already in position to maneuver a liberal, filibuster-proof majority in Congress for a variety of legislation. The votes are there for (quasi-)universal health care, climate change legislation, and massive gov’t job creation spending, withdrawal from Iraq, as well as things like EFCA, FOCA, ENDA.

I would prefer a real challenge to capitalist organization and a real realignment away from imperialism (I could list policies if anyone cares), but I think we have to recognize that Obama has the power to create progressive change unparalleled since LBJ and FDR. He’s made quite clear that these are the things he plans to do. It’s all about the votes, and he has ‘em.

50

Steve LaBonne 01.20.09 at 2:06 pm

Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think it’s extremely naive to downplay the huge role played by the way that LBJ came into office, and the tide of sentiment that created.

And Obama certainly MIGHT be powerful enough to produce real progress, though one should never underestimate Harry Reid’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, it sure looks as though Obama isn’t even going to try, preferring to be the safe “bipartisan” centrist. (Only that’s not at all safe in the condition we’re in.)

51

George Reitman 01.20.09 at 3:03 pm

I assume “Mike” Kazin is the same fool who wrote this:

THE FACT THAT his [Howard Zinn] text barely mentions either conservatism or Christianity is telling. The former is nothing but an excuse to grind the poor (“conservatism” itself doesn’t even appear in the index), while religion gets a brief mention during Anne Hutchinson’s rebellion against the Puritan fathers and then vanishes from the next 370 years of history.

Given his approach to history, Zinn’s angry pages about the global reach of U.S. power are about as surprising as his support for Ralph Nader in 2000. Of course, President William McKinley decided to go to war with Spain at “the urging of the business community.” Zinn ignores the scholarly verdict that most Americans from all classes and races backed the cause of “Cuba Libre”-but not the later decisions to vassalize the Caribbean island and colonize the Philippines. Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in World War II, “to step forward as a defender of helpless countries.” Zinn thins the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima. His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made him a lifelong pacifist. But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.

52

Unk 01.20.09 at 3:29 pm

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

The sheer volume in numbers of people listening to Tao Rodriguez sing, and watching Pete Seeger lead, is a testament to the meaning this has, to the unifying power of working together, instead of giving in to cynicism.

It’s no problem to me, honest, that Pete gets a couple of lyrics wrong, or that he’s a step slower than he used to be in leading out the words to a song. After all, he himself says he can hardly remember anything, about Odetta, or song lyrics or anything. I’d say that he does right well for a nearly-90.

You go, Pete. And … you go Tao. Those guys were a good example of culture for my kids, who are 3 and almost 10 and love to sing. The younger one asked for “this land is my land, and your land,” he asked for Pete Seeger, whom we sing about in lullabies. He’s got something to grow on, and so do we all, until we’re dead. Or cynical.

Also? Doesn’t matter if German TV thinks that Bruce is singing the high hard tones that Tao makes (that sound like his granddaddy of old). Doesn’t matter whether they call it an Amtsantritt, or the slightly more sinister-sounding Amtseinfuehrung. They’re all watching, and many, many people worldwide are willing to hand in their Cynic’s Union cards for something more wide and inclusive. That’s a good thing. Eh?

53

DivGuy 01.20.09 at 3:40 pm

I think it’s extremely naive to downplay the huge role played by the way that LBJ came into office, and the tide of sentiment that created.

But he didn’t get shit-all passed until after the ’64 elections. I think you’re taking an emotional perspective on an event that was determined much more by structural factors and effective power politics.

54

salient 01.20.09 at 4:55 pm

If you search for ‘Pete Seeger’ on youtube, you can find a video of the performance that is still up, or was a few minutes ago.

Shucks. I think HBO has a lot to learn about bit torrent and peer-to-peer.

A great firewall there
Tried to stop me
Prevented access
through Firefox and IE
But via bit torrent
it says “Download is complete”

That ‘net was made for you & me.

55

R.Mutt 01.20.09 at 5:22 pm

Is there a video of Obama singing along with the “Private property” verse?

56

Steve LaBonne 01.20.09 at 6:15 pm

That ‘net was made for you & me.

But I wouldn’t bet the farm on its staying that way much longer. Because Big Telecom and Big Content both think, “this net was made for me me me!” and they can buy the politicians who can make it so.

57

Batocchio 01.20.09 at 6:29 pm

Pete and Arlo always sing those verses, I believe. It’s a great tradition.

58

Righteous Bubba 01.20.09 at 6:44 pm

That’s why Arlo loves him some Ron Paul.

59

(O)CT(O)PUS 01.20.09 at 7:41 pm

The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam informed my political and moral consciousness. I was a child of the times. About 14 years old at the time, and against my parents wishes, I hitched to Washington DC to witness Dr. King’s famous speech. I wanted to be part of the movement … and part of the moment.

Today, two of my own children are in Washington DC to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama and bear witness to history. It makes me proud that they take an interest in our public life. It has been a long journey. Of all the memories I cherish, there are few more heartwarming and gratifying than this.

60

MaryK 01.20.09 at 8:18 pm

Right up at the top it was mentioned (as if factual) that Woody was a member of the Communist Party. Not true, not true! What is true is that he wrote “Woody Sez” as a weekly column in the publication of the American Communist Party, but refused to actually join. The Party really wanted him to spout the official dogma and he wouldn’t. At the Joe McCarthy hearings, he said, “I ain’t never been a Communist, but I been in the red all my life!” They couldn’t prove anything against him. Seeger and many others tried to stand up to the HUAC hacks and were severely treated because of it; Seeger was banned from television appearances for many years until the Smothers Brothers brought him on their show in 1968. They didn’t last long after expressing their political side, either.

61

Bernard Yomtov 01.20.09 at 9:56 pm

But he didn’t get shit-all passed until after the ‘64 elections.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964?

62

David 01.21.09 at 7:26 pm

63

Tyrone Slothrop 01.22.09 at 4:03 am

I was there, and tears ran down my face.

64

salient 01.24.09 at 5:24 am

I was there, and tears ran down my face.

At least you didn’t get an erection.

65

Tom Hurka 01.24.09 at 11:55 am

# 45

I love Sharon Jones, but I don’t think her version of this song works. Maybe sometimes a folk song is just a folk song.

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