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.)
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, While we all sup sorrow with the poor; There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears; Oh! Hard times come again no more. ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary, Hard Times, hard times, come again no more Many days you have lingered around my cabin door; Oh! Hard times come again no more.
The song doesn’t pray for no more hard times just for Christians, or just for Americans. It is a universal lament that every one of God’s children has felt during one dark time or another. Can’t we hear these words coming from the mouths of today’s victims of terrorism? From those Syrians who are persecuted, Muslim and Christian alike, by Daesh/ISIS and are now fleeing to our shores as refugees, crying out for a land of religious freedom like the English pilgrims before them?
I try to be a man of deep faith, and have certainly led a very political life, but I generally try to keep those things off of this blog. If justice is my calling and my career, then music is my passion and my hobby. I like to keep those two worlds separate so that the music can reach as wide an audience as possible for its own sake.
I can’t do that today. This is too important. Part of “Americana” music is “America” – and all the values that that word claims to stand for. Values like love, justice, compassion, and hospitality. America should not and can not stand for hatred, bigotry, nationalism, or rejection. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” These are the values we have always sung about, and what we must keep singing. What do we want America to be is a question that all of us answer every minute of every day, and need to talk about in every space, even music blogs. So I write today as an American, as a Christian, and also, later in this post, as a music fan, so if you only came for the music, please press on (or scroll down).
Donald Trump said this week that Muslims in the U.S. “absolutely” have to register in a database, and that we need more than just databases to manage them. He did not argue with comparisons to Third Reich Germany requiring its Jewish citizens to wear identifying symbols and tattoos. His bigoted broadside against religious freedom comes on the heels of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz’s comments that America should allow Christian refugees, but not Muslim refugees – never mind that Daesh/ISIS’s primary victims are its fellow Muslims.
Jesus calls me to love everyone. Everyone means everyone, but especially Muslims, my brothers and sisters in the God of Abraham. These brothers and sisters face far too much violence – abroad from ISIS, at home from bigotry – leaving them bleeding at the side of the road. Jesus says I need to love my neighbor, to think of everyone as my neighbor, and to help the person bleeding by the side of the road. He used a Samaritan as the example, because Jews in 30 AD looked at Samaritans the same way Trump, Cruz, and Bush look at Muslims today. But, Jesus said, that’s not what matters.
“You want to witness to the gifts of Christ? This is how you do it. You care for the poor, the powerless, the strangers. Yes, even though there’s some risk. *Because* there is some risk. Because to be a Christian is to open ourselves to vulnerability, in imitation of Christ who made himself vulnerable to us.”
The photographer, Osman Sagirli, said the little Syrian girl thought his camera was a gun, so she put her hands up as her mother had taught her.
Trump has led the presidential primary polls for months. Cruz has shown he has the influence to shut down the federal government, and Bush is the son and brother of two past U.S. presidents. These men matter, a great deal. Don’t think that the history books won’t record their hatred and ignorance, or that the rest of the world isn’t taking notice now – and don’t think that those historians and global neighbors won’t also attribute that hatred and ignorance to us if we are not seen speaking out, loudly and vehemently. American Muslim citizens are also noticing, and we need to let them know that we stand by them. They need to feel that they are not alone or endangered during this dark time. If we don’t light a candle in the darkness, who will?
It is especially important for us country and Americana fans to speak out. The country music world is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) white and Christian. Americana may not be quite as heavily Christian, but it is also a very white genre. We are the ones who are most likely to support politicians like Trump, Cruz, and Bush. We are the ones being defined by their words. We are also the ones with the most ability to become good neighbors to all of our brothers and sisters. But just as our actions can be powerful, so is our inaction – we are the ones who can leave our Muslim friends feeling abandoned, ignored, and threatened. We need to choose action over inaction, and stand with them in love.
Let’s also remember that there is a long, rich musical tradition of singing out our values of compassion, love, and justice, especially in Americana, country, and folk. It wasn’t just Foster. Woody Guthrie wrote the dust bowl ballads about struggling farmers and migrant workers. Pete Seeger sang about unions and fair wages. So much of roots music was shaped by slave spirituals, praising God and yearning for that most precious human right, freedom. After 9/11, many country stars emphasized the importance of standing together. And folk music was home to hundreds of civil rights and Vietnam War protest songs. (Many ask where today’s protest songs are. They still exist, but they’re not folk anymore – they are hip hop. But in a way, if folk music is the lyrical voice of a people, isn’t hip hop the folk music of certain urban landscapes? I digress.)
Returning to the issue at hand, America is “one nation, under God” and “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one. We do not treat Muslims differently than Christians. We are one people. And it’s not just a slogan – it’s the law. As our First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And earlier, in Article VI, paragraph 3, we read, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Rejecting people of a faith different than our own could not be more un-American. If we do not stand for religious freedom for all, we do not stand for religious freedom at all, and we do not sing our country songs of praise with pure or honest hearts.
I cried for 15 minutes when I saw this picture of little Aylan Kurdi in September, just three years old. Photographer Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency said her “blood froze.”
We have made these mistakes before. At the same time that Hitler was requiring the Jews to register, we were turning them away, refusing to let in refugees because we were afraid that German spies would hide among their ranks. One of the would-be refugees denied entry was Anne Frank herself. We have made these mistakes before. We cannot make them again.
And it’s easy to love Muslims. Like George W. Bush told us, Islam is a religion of peace. Yes, it has its violent Scriptures, but so does Christianity. Terrorists are to Islam what the KKK, Westboro Baptists, or Irish wars are to Christianity. But even if this were not true, we are also called to love our enemies.
I don’t have to choose values-based arguments – there is definitely a practical side to this issue. I could argue, and have elsewhere, that turning away refugees is exactly what ISIS wants us to do (and they’ve said so in their propaganda to one another). I could argue in favor of the rigorous 18-month vetting process that refugees face. I could point to the overwhelmingly positive statistics that show refugees simply don’t commit terrorism here. I could talk about how it doesn’t make sense for a terrorist to come as a refugee – there are faster, easier ways to strike.
But values are what matter most. We show who we are when times are hard, not when they’re easy. This is when it’s most important to stand by the values we proclaim, and not shrink like cowards in the face of fear. I think Joe Biden put it wonderfully yesterday in an off-the-cuff answer to a reporter’s question:
“One way to make sure that the terrorists win is for us to begin to change our value system. That’s number one. Number two, we have a real vetting system for refugees coming into the country. We can assure Americans that they will be safe. For us to turn our back now, for us to turn our back now on refugees is turning our back on who we are. The only way terror wins is if they cause you to change your value system. ISIS is no existential threat to the United States of America – simply stated, they are not. And we are going to be working as hard as we can to open our arms to refugees.”
Shame on every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, both Republican and Democrat, who voted against American values of compassion, hospitality, and justice yesterday – and shame on every one of us who stands idly by without saying a word. Please, look up how your member voted here, then call Congress and ask for your representative at (202) 224-3121 to either thank or chastise them. And because this conversation needs to be loud and public, please share posts like this one, and also this one from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the one from above by Pastor Dan, this one, and this one on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or whatever else you use. It won’t be easy – you might have friends or family who fight you for it. But that’s why it matters. That’s where love needs to be planted most.
“For the Lord your God is god… who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18–19
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35