As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said “no trespassing”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city . In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
The voice and sentiments sound contemporary, don’t they?
But these sharp-edged words were written and sung by Woody Guthrie (born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie) in 1940. They are the fourth and sixth verses of his signature song, “This Land is Your Land,” and they express his core beliefs–the beliefs of a man so committed to eradicating class inequality and promoting social justice that he displayed on his guitar the slogan “This machine kills fascists.”
This great American singer-songwriter-folk musician would have been one hundred years old this summer. Born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody survived a very difficult childhood and adolescence. For instance, first there were a series of mysterious home fires. When he was just shy of his seventh birthday, his beloved older sister Clara lost her life in one of them. Another blaze completely destroyed the family home. Finally, when he was fourteen, his mother hurled a kerosene lamp at his dozing father, severely burning him. His mother, who we now know was showing symptoms of advanced Huntington’s disease, a debilitating neurological disorder, was institutionalized for the rest of her life. The fires stopped after that.
When Woody’s father relocated to Texas to find work, Woody, still only fourteen, was left in Okemah with his older brother. But in spite of real hardships, the next four years proved to be transformative for him. That was when he learned from neighborhood musicians how to play both harmonica and guitar. Gradually he was able to earn a few coins and an occasional sandwich, performing a repertoire of traditional English and Scottish songs and ballads he had learned by ear. When he was not busking on the streets, he could be found in the public library. where he read voraciously. He dropped out of high school, preferring to learn on his own from books and the school of hard knocks even after his father was able to bring him to Texas. There he continued to grow as a musician by playing at dances with a fiddling uncle.
Married in 1931 at age 19 to his first wife, Mary Jennings, Guthrie fathered three children, all of whom died prematurely. During the years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, he joined the thousands of Okies migrating to California. In the process he found his “soul family” and true calling.
His signature song,“This Land is Your Land,” is very much a distillation of values shaped by his many visits to Okie camps, where he not only performed for hundreds of people but also visited the migrants in their tents and shacks to hear what they were singing. Above all, his song is about people.
Tellingly, he changed the original final line of each verse from “God blessed America for me” to the resonant “This Land was made for you and me.” This was in deliberate contrast to Irving Berlin’s more sentimental “God Bless America,” published just a year earlier, in 1939.
Turning to our own time with its social media, we can wonder what Woody would have written and sung for recent events like Occupy Wall Street or in response to the Citizens United decision. He certainly had a profound influence on later protest singers/composers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, who were deeply moved by his musical activism, his standing up for the downtrodden and dispossessed, his assault on power elites.
Below you can hear Woody Guthrie himself sing his timeless composition, “This Land is Your Land.”
P.S. You may recall that Woody’s son Arlo continued his father’s activism in the 1960’s with his own signature song,
“Alice’s Restaurant,” a tongue-in-cheek but still socially aware commentary on his times in the late 1960’s.
We like to offer ideas to support your well being through music.
Research tells us that strong relationships with peers and between generations in essential for well being. We hope you can use this post to start stimulating conversations about values with friends and family or in agency programs. At the very least, you can introduce others to Woody’s music and his importance in American cultural life.