I put my Spotify library on shuffle to try to find a song with even a sliver of the same themes as in the books we’ve been reading. There were a LOT of love songs, but those don’t work. Love (at least the love we’ve been spoon-fed) is too omnipresent; not unique enough to America. Songs about drugs? Sorry Juicy J, you didn’t make the cut. The Beatles? No, they’re British. A Father John Misty song came close, and I almost settled for it. But then, into my little ears and brain came “This Land is Your Land.” Duh.
The famous chorus goes like this:
This land is your land, 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
Presumably everyone in America with the gift of hearing has heard this song.
Woody Guthrie’s stripped down, acoustic “This Land is Your Land” crackled through the radio of my grandpa’s Ford in the 50s. In the 80’s, my dad put a vinyl on his turn-table and listened to Bruce Springsteen’s live version of the song, fully equipped with electric guitar. Springsteen said before he played it: “It’s just about the greatest song ever written about America. It gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country was supposed to be about.” What could get more American than that? If I had a time machine, I’d go back to when that was recorded so I could eat a hot-dog and drink a Sam Adams in the crowd. I’d also probably cry.
Today, I put on my sound cancelling headphones, which were attached to my touch screen pocket computer, AKA: my Iphone, to listen to a highly-produced, groovy rendition of “This Land is your Land” by Chicano Batman. My grandfather has no clue what an Iphone is. He barely knows how to work his answering machine. My dad still can’t text. He uses “talk to text.” “This Land is Your Land” has withstood the test of time. Each generation has a different version of this song, and each new version shows how far we’ve come. “This Land is your Land” has evolved along with America and been a symbol of progression.
It was written by Guthrie 1940 as a retort to “God Bless America.” Apparently, he couldn’t stand that song. It wasn’t released until 1950. It came out in the midst of “The Red Scare” and was thought by some to be an anthem for Marxism in America. It’s now hailed as an alternate American anthem.
Bob Dylan, who was the star of my primer, idolized Guthrie. Dylan said of Guthrie, “You could listen to Woody Guthrie songs and actually learn how to live…” Guthrie sang folk songs about America in all of its glory and shame, much like Whitman with “Song of Myself” and Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer. It made a huge comeback when Trump (AKA: Tiny Hands) was elected to run our country. “This Land is your land” has, just like “Song of Myself,” appeared in numerous commercials.
California rock band Chicano Batman and Whiskey brand Johnnie Walker collaborated on a commercial in where Chicano Batman’s version of “This Land is Your Land” is played while the band walks around, and occasionally drinks whiskey. It was part of a campaign called “Keep Walking America”. It’s essentially a music video with some well-thought-out product placement. Chicano Batman’s version includes a verse sung in Spanish. America is now 17.8% Hispanic. It’s been projected (with some speculation) that whites will be a minority by 2044. We’re becoming more and more diverse every day. The Spanish verse in Chicano Batman’s rendition gives the song a new dimension. It shows the diversity so prominent in this “melting pot” of a country. As America evolves, so does its alternative anthem. The motto of the Johnnie Walker commercial: “Here’s to moving forward.”
2017 has been an especially big year for “This Land is your Land.” It came to be a protest song sung at Democratic party rallies. Trumps slander against Hispanics and Mexicans gives Chicano Batman’s revamped version even more weight.
I wrote in my primer that canonized American literature must remain relevant in order for it to be worth our time studying. I still believe that, but I now know that sometimes, you have to really dig for the relevance in a work. “This Land is Your Land,” however, is pretty clear-cut with its staying power. Much like Uncle Toms Cabin, “This Land is Your Land” is a piece of popular culture. They’re both easily understood; their messages are explicit. They don’t deal in ambiguity or obscurity. In plain language: this song is your song, this song is my song. That was really corny.
Perhaps the way in which this song relates most to the literature that we’ve read in class is that it points out a flaw in our nation. There’s a red thread that weaves its way through most of the works we’ve read this year. The frayed end of that thread tickles the confident refrains in “This Land is Your Land.” The theme that begs to differ with this song: systemic racism. From the Native American horror stories, to the numerous works on slavery, almost every novel we’ve read, and every class we’ve had has dealt with the topic of racial status and how it’s portrayed in America. We’ve certainly progressed since the days of Melville and Jacobs, but we still live in an era where racism is promoted by our own President.
“This land was made for you and me” rings out at the end of every stanza of the song. It’s both truth and myth. It could be America’s slogan, but it could also be America’s joke.
This land was made for you and me? Maybe one day.
I tossed this one in because MMJ is amazing.