Monday, February 6, 2017

Lady Gaga, Woody Guthrie, and the Times We're Living In

Lady Gaga has never been mentioned in my blog before, but she earned my deepest respect yesterday when she included the Woody Guthrie song "This Land is Your Land" to open the Super Bowl half-time show. Because generations of children learned the song in primary school, it has become so familiar that it is easy to forget that the song is a populist protest anthem of the people. And it has become more than appropriate to remember the song as we face the political situation of the present day. We face huge threats, not from terrorists, not from foreign powers, but from those who now control the apparatus of our own government, and who want to twist the power of that government to profit a handful of oligarchs.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I read these lyrics and think proudly of the beautiful lands that we've set aside for the enjoyment of all our people, and those who visit from across the planet. Not just our national parks, but all of the national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and state parks across the country. And yet at this very moment, there is a movement in Congress to sell off some of our precious lands to private interests, to let the fossil fuel industry drill without regulation. One of the most beautiful landscapes in our country was set aside in the closing days of the Obama administration, and now there are those trying to remove protection from the Bear's Ears National Monument and others.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

But the song is much more than a paean to the beauty of our land. Our people are precious too, all of them. The song was written in the depths of the Great Depression, when more than a quarter of the population was unemployed and hungry. The oligarchs didn't care then, and they don't care today. The people who came to California looking for a better life were mistreated then just as they are today, whether they came from Oklahoma and Texas in the 1930s, or from Mexico in the present day.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Others added to the protest. I'm not sure who wrote it, but this verse was taught to me 45 years ago:

This land is your land, but it once was my land,
Until we sold you Manhattan Island.
You pushed our Nations to the reservations;
This land was stole by you from me.

The last verse from Woody honors not the freedom to roam the highways, but anyone who fights to have the rights reserved for all Americans, and in case we've forgotten, the rights of all people worldwide to live free:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

If you ever want to understand true populism, the kind that isn't sold like snake oil by wanna-be dictators, then embrace all the meaning of this incredible song. In these times, this should be our national anthem. It celebrates the people and the land, not military victories. The real strength of our country comes not from military conquest, but the preservation and promotion of freedom for all.

1 comment:

Garry Hayes said...

@JoelVanderWerf noted this Phil Oches song over on Twitter. Powerful.

Come and take a walk with me thru this green and growing land
Walk thru the meadows and the mountains and the sand
Walk thru the valleys and the rivers and the plains
Walk thru the sun and walk thru the rain
Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)
From Colorado, Kansas, and the Carolinas too
Virginia and Alaska, from the old to the new
Texas and Ohio and the California shore
Tell me, who could ask for more?
Yet she's only as rich as the poorest of her poor
Only as free as the padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand

Read more: Phil Ochs - The Power & The Glory Lyrics | MetroLyrics