Monday, July 9, 2012

Woody Guthrie wrote the REAL national anthem


I don't mind the British drinking song to which Francis Scott Key set lyrics, giving us "The Star-Spangled Banner." I can enjoy the purple-mountained majesty of "America the Beautiful" and the humble prayer of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (though that's set to another British song) and even the grandiose self-approval of "God Bless America."

But for my money, the truest anthem about America was written by the Oklahoman whose 100th birthday will be celebrated on Saturday.

"This Land Is Your Land" doesn't honor battles or conquests. It doesn't talk about how perfect America is -- rather the reverse, in its full-length version -- or how the Lord singled us out for special attention, though Guthrie apparently considered using the line "God blessed America for me" to end each verse. (He wisely opted for the egalitarian "This land was made for you and me.")

The song is quintessentially American: The narrator is a wanderer who (like Guthrie) "roamed and rambled and followed (his) footsteps," acting out the U.S. dream of eternal mobility. "This Land" praises our natural wonders and may even give God a look-in, as the unspecified voice "all around me" sounding the title of the song. Most importantly, it says the country belongs to you and me.

Pete Seeger sang it at Barack Obama's inauguration to indicate that power had been given to the people. But Americans of all political persuasions have used it for different reasons. I wouldn't be surprised to hear conservatives sing it in protest, because they believe the federal government has taken too much authority on itself, or liberals sing it as a warning that Mitt Romney would create a government of wealthy oligarchs.

So why won't this song ever become the national anthem? First, nobody cares enough to jettison "The Star-Spangled Banner," which most of us can't sing but which has tradition on its side.

Second, the unexpurgated "This Land" has verses that question whether Americans really take care of each other in times of need, and we can't have doubt in an anthem. Of course, that's not in the four verses most of us know, and we could simply leave off the controversial part. After all, we sing only 25 percent of the current national anthem. (Yes, the lyrics -- a poem titled "Defense of Fort McHenry" -- run to four repetitive, uninspired verses.)

Third, Woody Guthrie leaned far to the left, though he may not officially have joined any Communist groups. He believed in a kind of rough, unofficial socialism, which he picked up while crossing America during The Depression and seeing vast differences in the ways people lived.

That's why he wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. That's why he composed so many songs about the working class and the disenfranchised. And that's why, though all of us can handle the tune to "This Land Is Your Land," we're going to keep celebrating those bombs bursting in air.

20 comments:

Exit 0 said...

I've not historically cared for you...Lawrence, but major props on this post.

I could not agree more.

Augustus Gump said...

For me, it would have to be "America the Beautiful." I admire the tone it takes, asking God to help create a better America, rather than self-congratulation about how great the place is now. I'm not even from America, but I find that inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Every couple years some schlump comes along and bitches about THE National Anthem. Why don't you offer up an idea for a new flag too? 50 white stars on a blue background with 13 alternating stripes of red and white is sooooooooo yesterday.

John said...

If you don't like the National Anthem, then why don't you move to San Francisco and write for the nutjobs out there? Or, better yet, why don't you move to another country and find out how much "God Bless America" is just "grandiose self-approval" and how much is that we really DO have it very much better than most of the world?

Anonymous said...

Gated communities, public lands leased to private corporations, 1% owning 80% of everything....not much has changed since Woody recorded this reminder..this land is our land.

Anonymous said...

You're way off base on this one. This land may be our land, but the song tells nothing of how it got that way. It gives no hint of the struggle our forefathers endured to make it our land. And frankly, the song was written as a protest song.

Perhaps there are a lot of things that need changing in our country, but the national anthem is not one of them.

Leave it alone.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought much of you as a film critic, but I figured maybe you were just out of your depth and didn't know any better.

You've outdone yourself with this one, though. This is pure garbage.

I think you've lost your mind. Were you drunk or on drugs when you wrote this?

Bill said...

Great article, Lawrence. Especially, the 'love it or leave it' responses.

Seriously, the level of vitriol in some of these folks is scary. He is simply exercising his right to Free Speech and you guys freak out.

Life is short. Lighten up.

John said...

Well Bill, so are we. I for one, fought for it.

Anonymous said...

Well said, John. And thank you for your service!

Anonymous said...

Freebird

Anonymous said...

Lawerence,

While I enjoy all of the songs you mention, The Star Spangled Banner should remain the national anthem because of its history of being composed by a non-combatant watching the combat around him. Its sort of like early war correspondence, only more artistic. That being said, I do love This Land is Your Land and its vision of a shared future in a shared land. As for God Bless America, I tend to think of it as a plea these days, not speaking to how great we are, but more to how great we can be if God blessed us. Anyway, I appreciate your view point, and while I don't agree, I can certainly respect it.

Unknown said...

yes it must be egalitarian...and Godless too of course

NCdirtdigger said...

Yes, nothing says America like a communist anthem.

Garth Vader said...

Guthrie took most of the melody for TLiYL from the Carter Family's "When The World's on Fire" (who themselves adapted it from the hymn "Oh My Loving Brother".

Here's the Carter Family tune:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxo-zayI6tE

Garth Vader said...

If Woody were alive today both Obama and Romney would be scared of his guitar ;^)

SusieQ said...

Wow. So much hate over a writer expressing their opinion, which last time I checked, was their job! Ha! Thanks for the article and your opinions. All of the songs listed are meaningful and part of our country's history. I love "This Land is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful" because they are by far easier to sing, but I will proudly sing along whenever "The Star Spangled Banner" is played. God bless our freedom of speech, and our freedom to sing our national anthem off key.

Jim said...

I'd settle for just having the ol' Star Spangled Banner played or sung according to the sheet music used by the Marine Corps Band and Chorus -- in other words, NOT performed by some self-promoting, half-azz entertainer!

Mark Caplan said...

I can imagine the Koch brothers and the CEOs of Exxon and BP looking down on America from their private jet and singing: "This land is your land! This land is my land! From California to the New York island!" while Mitt Romney beats time. That is the only context in which the lyrics make sense.

Anonymous said...

@ Mark Caplan,

Is Obama, with his BFF Jon Corzine and Lloyd Blankfein, any better?

99% of Dems and Reps are the same.