Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bound for nothin'

Over at National Review Online, Lee Habeeb reflects on the centennial of folk singer Woody Guthrie. Woody, alas, was something of a  communist who performed and his signature song, This Land is Your Land, was intended as a diatribe against private property. Guthrie wrote it as a response to Irving Berlin's God Bless America. Woody, apparently unable to endorse its sentiment, was enraged by Berlins' anthem.

History's verdict appears to be with Berlin. I can't recall singing "This Land is Your Land, during a seventh inning stretch.

Habeeb writes about a verse of the song - often omitted although I have heard it a number of times - that is a direct attack on property rights.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
A great big sign there said, “private property”;
But on the back side, it didn’t say nothin’;
That side was made for you and me.
Pete Seeger - who has sung that verse for years - croaked it out with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama's inauguration. But that simply reinforces the notion that history has been unkind to Woody.
Today's tribunal of the proletariat, the aforementioned Boss, has a net worth of $ 200 million. You can be sure that the signs around his estate down the Jersey shore or 200 acre farm don't "say nothin'."

Whatever frisson the Boss got by singing Truth to Power apparently doesn't extend to off stage life. Woody's socialism has become something of a period piece - trotted out as nostalgia by people who couldn't imagine having to live by it. To quote the prophet, Bono, "don't believe in riches, but you should see where I live."

Of course, as recent history tells us, even discredited ideas can come back. This Land is Your Land  is a catchy little sing along. It's animating philosophy is not a tune we can dance to.


Anonymous said...

Part 1

First, your link to Lee Habeeb appears not to be working. Perhaps it is my computer. If you could check it out and/or fix it, that would be great.

Second, from my recollections, Guthrie associated with, but was not an official member of, the Communist Party. He was a Marxist.

Today’s citizens equate communism to dictatorship, and the implication is that he would support such efforts. On the contrary, he repudiated brutal regimes. As a member of the Merchant Marine during World War II,
and later drafted into the U.S. Army, he performed dozens of his anti-fascist songs for those with whom served.

“History's verdict appears to be with Berlin. I can't recall singing "This Land is Your Land, during a seventh inning stretch.”

This is your sole reasoning behind your assertion? That because we don’t cherish it at a sporting event that it seemingly lacks in overall significance? Do you give a free pass to your students when they use flimsy evidence to support their claims?

Caveat--I also love God Bless America for its lyrics and its powerful emotion connection to our country.

I think you need a little history lesson regarding Guthrie, his work, and HISTORICAL CONTEXT, which your blog entry totally disregards.

Guthrie's influence looms large...songwriters as Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and John Mellencamp for starters. They have acknowledged him as a catalyst for their own work in opening the eyes of Americans to our country’s greatness AND its deficiencies. Guthrie had been a trailblazer in this regard. This philosophy, judging by their talent, their reviews by music critics and social historians--besides their record sales and immense popularity--has struck a cord with the masses for decades. Their messages of love, hope, redemption, and even justice and equality resonates as “ANIMATING PHILOSOPHY THAT WE CAN DANCE TO”, literally and figuratively.

Guthrie was a Renaissance man, traveling with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California, where he plied his trade in traditional folk and blues. A majority of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, which embodies the American spirit of self-reliance.

Anonymous said...

Part 2

He himself overcame a rough upbringing--he lost his sister to a house fire and his mother was committed. He was dedicated to his causes, even if it meant giving up a lucrative opportunity on CBS because sponsors demanded he sing only certain songs. Guthrie had his own demons--he had eight kids by three different women. Ultimately, Huntington’s disease took his life, which seems somehow oddly fitting.

Similar to Guthrie’s life, our nation is full of complexities and contradictions. It is this very essence that makes “Your Land Is My Land” powerful by simultaneously promoting and questioning American idealism. You, sir, apparently are hell bent on solely focusing on the fact that this song is left-wing protest. However, it also celebrates; instead of looking skeptically at our country and system, it has entered the realm of America, into its stream of consciousness, and belongs, just like the land, to you, me, and all of us.

From a social historian--’While the desire to preserve the celebratory aspects of the song is understandable, it need not be at the expense of a fuller understanding of the song. That the Marxist implication of the song is lost today seems not irrelevant, but problematic. It is symptomatic of a lack of understanding and even awareness of folk music and its historical, shaping influences and origins in the 30's and 40's, in American Communism, and folklore. It reflects a naivete about songs and how they come to be, perhaps a myth about songs and songwriting. More disturbingly, this reflects a historical blindness to the culture of the 30's and 40's and to American Communism specifically. Given that most people don't even know who wrote "This Land Is Your Land", the misunderstanding of the song is not so much a misunderstanding of Woody Guthrie or even the folk music tradition and community, but also, and even more, a misunderstanding of the 30's, the experiences and lessons of the era and the music and ideas that came out of it. It is a misunderstanding and abuse of the history of the country the song is supposed to celebrate. Even without the stanzas that came to be left out, the sentiment that "This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land" is obviously Marxist when put into the context of the 30's in which it was written with its labor strikes, unions, migrant workers, and general poverty.”

I contend it is possible to view those blistering lyrics in “This Land Is Your Land” as NOT an attack on capitalism itself, but as an attack deficiencies in that economic system, areas of concern that have been addressed by the right and on the left. Just as Woody's beliefs about what is good transcend Marxist thought, one can reasonably argue that his concept of good transcended capitalist thought.

Therefore, to PROPERLY comprehend Guthrie’s seminal work, one must consider its historical and biographical background. "This Land Is Your Land" was written in response to his experience of being kept out of Los Angeles along with other migrants by the authorities in 1936; a particular moment in our history whose events brought issues of justice and injustice, and therefore the concept of what America itself should be, to the forefront.

P.S. Why do you seemingly begrudge the Boss for EARNING wealth? Isn't that the American way? His songs reflect how and why people should aspire while being mindful of their duty to help those less fortunate.

Tom said...

Yes, but Irving Berlin didn't lead to THIS:


Or Joey Tribiani singing "This Hand Is Your Hand"

John Foust said...

I think Lee Greenwood is at least coveting other people's land, or maybe even stealing a little bit from Guthrie.

'Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.

From the lakes of Minnesota,
to the hills of Tennessee.
Across the plains of Texas,
From sea to shining sea.
From Detroit down to Houston,
and New York to L.A.

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