When Jamey Johnson Sings “This Land Is Your Land”

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is an amazing song. NPR tells the story, which you may already know:

He 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.” Guthrie’s original words to the song included this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie’s recorded version was more or less lost until [1997]… Still, it was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America. Guthrie’s folk-singing son, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger have both made a point of singing the more radical verses to “This Land Is Your Land,” also reviving another verse that Guthrie wrote but never officially recorded…

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

That’s not an easy verse. This song is not a nationalistic rah-rah ditty full of blind jingoism. It’s not even an actual patriotic heralding of America’s greatness. It is a lament for her people, left to suffer in hard times while the rich wall off their land and hoard the country’s growth – but it makes me love America all the more, for it sings of her true strength, its people. The words are, as Stephen Foster wrote in this blog’s namesake song, “a song that will linger forever in our ears… a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave, Oh! hard times come again no more.”

I have heard two singers cover This Land Is Your Land as a dirge, truly highlighting it as an ode to the poor: David Crowder and Jamey Johnson (who, side note, shares Guthrie’s birthday). They do it slowly, poigniantly, beautifully. I am moved every time I listen to either of them cover Guthrie.

So what the hell is wrong with Johnson’s audiences when he sings this song?

I saw him live last month in New Haven, CT. The music was great, but the audience was mostly terrible – far too many frat bros getting drunk on daddy’s money. They spent Johnson’s songs yelling insults at each other and spent the time in between the songs angrily screaming out requests for his biggest hits. “Seen it in Color!!! COME ON!!!!” Dude, have you not been to a show before? It’s his biggest hit. He’s going to play it, he’ll probably do it at the end, just shut up! Johnson himself, and his band, were great, especially with his George Jones medley and old Hank Cochran tunes, but I don’t blame him for not giving that unappreciative Friday night party crowd an encore.

But what cheesed me off the most was that when he sang his slow, beautiful cover of the “This Land Is Your Land,” INCLUDING the verse against private property, the crowd just chanted “USA! USA! USA!” like we were at the Olympics. No respect for the song’s true nature at all. Now, I can understand why everyone saw the song that way, given the way elementary schools sing the tune as one more patriotic ditty alongside God Bless America and America the Beautiful. It’s easy to not know the true backstory. But the way Johnson sings it – slow, solemn, minor chords – should be a clue that something special and different is happening. NOPE.

And it’s not just the Yale frat bros. I went looking for the song on YouTube, and found video of another show in Illinois where the crowd whooped and hollered, or just plain chatted, the whole way through. Those paying attention kept starting the verses faster than Johnson with no regard for pauses, the way they were taught in elementary school, ignoring his slower pace. It could just be the recording of course, with a different feel in the room, but the recording’s all we’ve got. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Anyway, rant over. All credit to Johnson himself; his approach to the song is perfect, even if the crowd isn’t paying enough attention to hear it. But I love the recording from Farm Aid 2015 – taken about a month before I saw him, and in Illinois like the other show – which I posted at the top. The video unfortunately includes audience members waving hands and beer cans, but the microphones are pretty much only on stage so it doesn’t interfere with the sound. I’m also including David Crowder’s similarly slow version, one of my favorite recordings of any song ever – even more than the Johnson, honestly, though I’ve not seen it live. Crowder’s was part of a series of protest songs released by Bono’s ONE poverty campaign:

(I wonder if they’re singing the same arrangement, or if they’re just being similarly slow? Either way, both are beautiful.)

 

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