Saturday, February 26, 2011

Whose Land?

"Feb. 23, 1940"--that's the date Woody Guthrie penned at the bottom of his single-page, original handwritten draft of the song eventually to become known as "This Land Is Your Land." As can be seen in the photo of that momentous sheet of paper (posted at recently), the original title and repeating refrain was "God Blessed America" completed by "... for me." But Woody crossed out all the God lines, and though there was no replacement refrain added, up top he did scribble a new title: "This Land Was Made For You & Me."

I wonder what Woody would make of the current on-going crisis crippling our nation, as the Supreme Court declares that corporations are "citizens," so the richest corporate thugs (American demi-oligarchs like the Koch Brothers) by their huge contributions now can buy state governors and state congressmen and our national Congress too; and the banksters and Streetists steal the wealth of investors big and small; and the rich folks and corporate rulers escape paying taxes altogether but still outsource as many manufacturing jobs as they can, while regular folks get taxed and taxed again--but even so, there's no money for all the physical and social infrastructure repairs and improvements desperately needed in 2011. And thus the Right Wing Repugnants proceed on several fronts with their longterm plan to dismantle unions and collective bargaining, workers' pension plans and Social Security and any other safety net program for ordinary citizens in need... and so destroy the working middle class of these dis-United States, land of the service fee and home of the minimum wage slave.

Folk-country musician and singer Steve Earle has a great political song called "Christmas in Washington" that touches on this, and part of his lyrics are a request:

So come back Woody Guthrie come back to us now
Tear your eyes from Paradise and rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus maybe He can help you out
Come back Woodie Guthrie to us now...

There's foxes in the henhouse, cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio you'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know it's goin' straight to hell.

Woody's own signature song, 71 years young, is often put forward as a strong (and actually singable) replacement for our increasingly obscure, seldom-sung National Anthem; and Guthrie's lovely, stirring images of redwood forests and Gulf Stream waters, diamond deserts and wheatfields waving amid ribbons of highway--his heartfelt, heartworn love song to this wonderful and shameful country--certainly would be a step up from the martial manipulation that blats like an amateur's trombone for "the twilight's last gleaming," "the perilous fight," and that yet-waving "star-spangled banner."

But my own favorite stanza of "This Land" hints at some slight civil disobedience, a minor version of what the infamous I.W.W. "Wobblies" of the Northwest woods and Montana mines called "blackcatting"-- which meant to interrupt the efficient flow of things by a work slowdown (sometimes by tossing a real monkey wrench into the machinery!) rather than a complete stoppage or walk-off-the-job strike. Woody's rarely sung words, with his punctuation:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property.
But on the back side it didn't say nothing--

...which was polished a bit later and a fourth line added, by Guthrie or friend Pete Seegar or maybe Woody's son Arlo: That side was meant for you and me.

The two-part question for Americans now is simple:

Whose land is this?
Which side are you on?

(I have another Guthrie post to write soon, but for now let this stand as my tribute to the threatened teachers and police and firemen and other unionized workers, in New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, and too many other Right Wing-infested states, but especially Wisconsin, whose valiant 14 state senators are fighting the good fight even if from a distance. And a tip of the hat to radio/TV host/talker/commentator Ed Schulz for spreading the word first, and then far and wide. And I ask with others, Where the hell is the President, our smooth-talking, nothing-doing, sadly corporate-centrist Democrat in all this? He should be marching and speaking out. Shame, Mr. Obama!)


I Witness said...

I received a lengthy and intriguing political/poetical sort-of comment which I've decided is not quite suited to this post. But I visited the website of author Ted Richards and found an amazing array of similar poems, political diatribes, aesthetic judgments, stories, education comments, and more, seemingly improvised on the fly as needed, and I invite anyone else so inclined (or simply curious) to check out the 8th Avenue South blog, at --Ed

Theodore Daniel Richards said...

Thanks Ed. Our email conversation was very stimulating in many ways.

Alan Kurtz said...

Of course it's your blog and you can post or not post whatever you want to. But if he submitted it as a comment, I don't see what harm would come in posting it here as such.

I Witness said...

Cogent as ever... so I'll be plangent and state that I made an aesthetic judgment--just didn't see a good match--but I also did not want to appear censorious. So I discussed it with Ted and instead happily promoted his site as well worth discovering. (I say that sincerely.)

What he had sent me was his own already-published post from a few days earlier (still right there if you want to read it), called "Punkish something" as I recall, aimed at Governor Walker of Wisconsin. So: slightly related and certainly a crass politician target worth aiming at, but also maybe leading a reader away from the Guthrie bit I was chewing over.

Feel free to read his poem piece and comment further.

David said...

Great posting on Woody. Substituting this song for the current national anthem is a fine idea. Let's do it.

I Witness said...

The actions of the Repugnant governors across the nation is generating such a backlash and citizen rising anger that, praise Guthrie, things might actually improve 'round here, from California to the New York islands. That is, assuming the world survives Japan's horrific quakes and collapse and nuclear meltdowns. 2012 is looming larger.