This land is our land…

Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the ways you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way the kids do. You’ll be healthier. You’ll feel wealthier. You’ll talk wiser. You’ll go higher, do better, and live longer here amongst us if you’ll just only jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do. I don’t want the kids to be grownup. I want to see the grown folks be kids. – – Woody Guthrie

I went to a July 4th celebration a couple of days ago.

I live in South-side Virginia, an area economically depressed because of the loss of the tobacco and textile industries. My wife, in fact, works for a think tank/research and education center/business incubator – built by tobacco settlement funds and guided by Virginia Tech – in our city that is devoted to trying to find new business opportunities that will offer the citizens of this region better paying, more meaningful work than their former masters in the textile and tobacco factories.

To the vast majority of my fellow citizens in Danville, I may as well have stepped off a UFO. They’re overwhelmingly dedicated church going evangelicals who vote for Republicans and believe everything George W. Bush tells them because he seems one of them. I’m a leftist progressive – one who grew up in another textile town about 25 miles away across the border in North Carolina.

There’s a disconnect when we try to talk beyond simple chat.

I avoid getting into conversations with my neighbors because I’m apt to say something critical of Dubya or Jesus that will offend them at almost any moment. They avoid getting into conversations with me because I’m some egghead with “librul” ideas that they find threatening or immoral.

So when a couple of nice neighbors suggested we attend the July 4th celebration at the big outdoor amphitheater down by the river from which the city gets its name – I was reluctant. I’d seen the program and, while it was patriotic and I’m a patriot, it was also corny with little kids singing and politicians “saluting veterans.” I’m a firm believer in giving veterans all the help they need – but I hate to see them trotted out like their medals for political purposes as they often are at July 4th celebrations….

My wife wanted to go, though, so we went. I had to endure a local singer doing his renditions of right wing propaganda – songs like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and Alan Jackson’s over-sentimentalized cash-in on 9/11, “Where Were You?”

When two little girls were introduced as the next entertainers. I groaned – too audibly, I guess, because several ladies around me looked at me rather annoyed.

And then the girls began to sing.

They had lovely voices and they blended them in that rich old harmony that made the Carter Family, fellow Virginians, legends of country music. And they sang traditional folk standards: “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Farther Along.” Their only accompaniment was their father playing acoustic guitar. It was charming and simple and true. It was authentic music.

And then the magical idea that is America came upon us all.


Without fanfare, the girls launched into “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. By the time they got to the chorus at the end of the first stanza, I could see people in their lawn chairs and seated on their blankets singing along:

This land is your land and this land is my land,
From the California to the New York Island,
From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me

I began singing, too. There we were – a bunch of Bush loving conservatives who’d had a blue state progressive foisted on them – singing a song by a wandering minstrel who loved and celebrated people like them because he was one of them – as I am, in truth – and who was himself a leftist of the first order.

The delicious irony of all these folks who thought of themselves as God-fearing supporters of The Decider singing a song by a guy who opposed guys like Bush with all his might wasn’t lost on me. I smiled at the people around me as we sang as I thought about it.

And they smiled back, moved to joy by a great American and his music. And blissfully ignorant of how he’d be savaged by Fox News, et. al. for his politics – and how they’d believe that he and his love for his country were bad things because they were told that they were….

But it was July 4th and Woody had us all singing about our country:

As I went walkin’ that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway,
Saw below me, that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.

And he knew what he was doing, too:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. – Woody Guthrie

So we sang together – liberal and conservative, egghead and evangelical.

And somewhere Woody smiled and played and sang along.

Don’t tell me this isn’t a great country….

7 replies »

  1. Beautiful, Jim. I’m reminded of visiting my dear but reactionary relatives in Lubbock, Texas. They can sing up a storm, too, from hymns to folk songs. We can even agree on this verse:

    In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
    Near the relief office, I see my people.
    And some are grumblin’, and some are wonderin’
    If this land’s still made for you and me.

    Their solution to inequality may not be the same as mine, but we’re all in it together as long as we’re singing.

  2. Precisely so, in your differences you are far closer together than you imagine. The strength that is the US. Our president, in sunny South Africa, may be remembered as The Divider. He spends more time calling people racist than he does anything else.

    And we have no song-writers who have managed to unite the nation, even in our differences.

  3. I know you know Johnny Clegg’s work, Gavin. Does he not hold at least some credence with South Africans across the board?

    Just wondering – I’m a great admirer (Sam introduced me). And he certainly sings about issues relevant to S.A. – and the world….

  4. Yeah, Jim, but when we’re all singing the same song does it count if the things we envision are different? I mean, if I asked all Americans do they want an end to poverty, world peace, and the best education for their kids, they’d all say yes, right?

    *sigh* I’m sorry – I’m being needlessly pragmatic, aren’t I?

  5. Sam,

    If we’re all singing the same song, maybe that’s enough at some moments.

    I understand that the differences between me and my neighbors here are not resolved. I noted that the irony of the moment wasn’t lost on me.

    But the pleasure of having Woody, a guy who’d agree with me, transcend our differences for us was rich. I’ll take it for what it was worth.