The song remains the same
This land is your land, so keep singing it
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.
“We’d like you to join us in perhaps the greatest song ever written about our home,” Bruce Springsteen said back in January 2009, prefacing the penultimate song performed at President Barack Obama’s public inaugural celebration. The Boss then deferred to the late, great Pete Seeger to lead the assembled masses in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
It’s difficult to describe the joy and optimism I felt then, watching on TV as the country’s first black president and an estimated 400,000 people gathered at the National Mall sang along. I felt something like that again last June, when Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee and her audience at Chico State sang the same song. That was just before Sen. Bernie Sanders stepped upon a makeshift stage to deliver a message not dissimilar to the spirit of the lyrics: America is faulted and far from perfect, but together—with power resting in the people’s hands—it can be better.
That’s not how things worked out. America is arguably more divided than it has been in decades as we brace for President-elect Donald Trump’s inaugural ceremony. As of press time, it’s still unclear who exactly will perform on Jan. 20, and some members of confirmed acts The Rockettes and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir are sitting it out. Choir soprano Jan Chamberlin justified her refusal by writing on Facebook, “I only know I could never ‘throw roses to Hitler.’ And I certainly could never sing for him.”
Trump may have to settle for the supporters who’ve already offered to play: Kid Rock and Ted Nugent. The Nuge seems well-suited for the event, and perhaps he can update one of his signature songs with some of Trump’s own words. Get ready for “[Grab ’em by the] Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.”
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?
Guthrie wrote “This Land” on a cold winter day in 1940 in a New York City flophouse, partly as a cheeky response to Kate Smith’s monstrously popular version of “God Bless America.” Smith’s other hits included a little ditty called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” (“Someone had to pick the cotton,” she sings). She was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor—the country’s highest civilian award—by Ronald Reagan. Guthrie died, broke, of Huntington’s disease in 1967.
Speaking of racism, one adversary Guthrie named in a few of his songs is “Old Man Trump”—referring to Donald’s father, real estate mogul Fred Trump. The elder Trump was Guthrie’s landlord circa 1950, and the singer railed against the “whites-only” policy and shoddy living conditions in the public housing projects Trump built. Fred Trump was also investigated for profiteering off public contracts to develop and manage those properties by a U.S. Senate committee in 1954. There lie the roots of the fortune the current president-elect was born into. Apples, trees and such.
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.
Contemporary issues and characters—down to the exact names of our oppressors—continue to mirror the subjects of protest songs written by Guthrie, or Joe Hill before and Bob Dylan after. The words to “This Land” remain as relevant today as when they were written, and other Guthrie songs beg to be updated with fresh lyrical references, a folk-music practice he himself embraced.
As Trump continues to stoke his bromance with Vladimir Putin and stock his cabinet with swamp-dwellers, there’s a song I’d suggest starting with. The verses are simple couplets that lend themselves to expressing personalized frustrations—just read the news for 10 minutes, get pissed and think of things that rhyme with “Twitter” or “bigly” or “white nationalism.” But don’t touch the title/chorus:
“All you fascists are bound to lose.”