My girlfriend adores Emmylous Harris (as do I), so sharing Emmylou’s cover of this blog’s namesake song seems an appropriate way to mark the first full week of the new year.
Author: Nathan Empsall
This Sunday’s Hard Times: Ian Siegal
This Sunday’s Hard Times: Kristin Chenoweth
A more classical rendition than many. Chenoweth has such a beautiful voice.
This Sunday’s Hard Times: Bob Dylan
An early Merry Christmas to you – this 1993 tribute from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson for Willie’s 60th birthday is pretty great.
This Sunday’s Hard Times: Iron and Wine
Learn more about this 2013 cover from Sam Beam at Rolling Stone
When the Christmas Carolers Don’t Look Like Me
It’s not Americana, country, or roots music, but it’s still music worth listening to:
Let It Be Christmas
I’m not addicted to Christmastime. Or to real country music. I can quit either anytime I want to…
BUT I WILL NEVER WANT TO
This Sunday’s Hard Times: Bruce Springsteen
This Thanksgiving and every day, I’m thankful for a good Boss.
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 … 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.)
The First Haikus I’ve Written Since High School, or, A Thank You Note to Country California
I’d like to offer a salute to Country California. Chris M. Wilcox’s one-man operation Country California was one of the best, and perhaps most important, independent and alternative country websites out there. I don’t blog nearly often enough, but when I do, it’s often inspired by something Chris included in a roundup of recent music quotes or country news. I also often appreciated his wit and humor, particularly in his country haikus. We’ve tweeted at each other a little, more recently.
After seven years, Chris is moving on from Country California. He’s certainly earned the right. You can keep reading his stuff, just not strictly about country music and without the news clipping service, at chrismwilcox.com – some new song lyrics on important topics like mass incarceration, and musings on topics like how we use social media for good and for ill. In his honor, I’d like to try my hand at some of them fancy haiku doohickeys.
Country is Texas, Nashville!
Country is family
And it’s emotions and life
It is in your soul.
It is California.
Who saw that comin’?
This leaves a void that hopefully someone (not me) will be able to fill soon. That was a fact that Trigger lamented in a recent post on his important and impressive site Saving Country Music, “The Death of the Great American Music Blog.” There have been a number to go by the wayside in 2015 as writers find that adblockers are removing their revenue and folks just aren’t willing to pay for content. As a result, that content disappears. Everybody’s got to make rent, especially full-time writers, so off they go to the mainstream websites and the publicists. The downside to this, Trigger writes, is that
Blogs don’t appear to be getting replaced by anything, except maybe direct interactions between labels, publicists, artists, and the consumer, with no 3rd party to check the validity of the information being delivered, or to offer any perspective or opinion… And all of this could hurt independent, and small-time artists looking to get noticed more than it will larger, major label artists. Losing music blogs and websites for more economically-viable or technologically savvy replacements is one thing. Replacing them with nothing, and having the music industry itself fill in the void through bias, paid content could result in much bigger issues than no good place to read about your favorite bands.
Hard Times No More will likely never occupy the kind of space Saving Country Music does and Country California did. Music is my passion, but justice and faith are my calling. I would love to find a way to do this full time, but I’d also love to be the play-by-play man for ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball, and I think it might be fun to ride unicorns with Teddy Roosevelt across New Zealand. These things ain’t gonna happen. Maybe one day I’ll have both the time and energy to post three substantive articles a week. That would be nice. But I tip my hat to the folks who make this space run and who give it their all for even a few years. I hope that someone else will ride up to be their calvary – those of us with medical or students deferrments need you to win this for us.
The country landscape
It has become full of hope
Now, a little less
Still, we keep singing
Music is universal
Roads goes on forever
Good luck to you Chris
Thanks for all you’ve done for us
But really, try Texas