Gruel, greed and grandeur
Woody Guthrie – whose tumultuous career is captured in remarkable depth on the four-CD “Asch Recordings,” released in 1999 – would have fit right in to the beginning of the 21st Century.
Vast, gorgeous, talented, free, fertile, hospitable but often spoiled by ignorance, avarice, deceit, prejudice and power in the wrong hands – that is the still sharp portrait of the land of the free painted by Guthrie, who, 30 years after his death, remains an American voice as true, enduring and provocative as Mark Twain or Walt Whitman.
The “Asch Recordings” – an essential for any serious American music collection – is proof of how Guthrie transcended his craft. Guthrie wound up both a songwriter and a great American journalist and, like Twain and Whitman, he became a lyrical historian. Guthrie chronicled the plight of democracy and the turbulent, often hungry hearts of men and women from the Great Depression through World War II through the Red Scare up to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
“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.”***
During this second Thanksgiving holiday after Sept. 11, in a time when we are told keep doing what makes us American amidst an unsettling but vague barrage of terror warnings, in a time when we are asked to rekindle our love for democracy when fellow citizens are held in military brigs without access to lawyers, in a time when the nonsensical indiscretion of a few men of Middle Eastern-descent in Georgia turns into a national crisis, the words Woody Guthrie wrote in 1940 are even more worth remembering and memorizing.
Because in all his time on the railroads, eating in dust-bowl kitchens, singing at labor rallies and performing with legendary musicians such as Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, Guthrie gathered some sharp insights into what the founding fathers, and the democratic visionaries who followed in their footsteps – Abraham Lincoln, Whitman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King – really had in mind.
Does being American mean snooping and snitching on your neighbors, as Attorney General John Ashcroft proposed the nation do to help him investigate evil-doers after Sept. 11? Does it mean an administration demonizing a hapless young man like John Walker Lindh to stoke its only moderately successful war on terrorism? Is it Vice President Dick Cheney berating as unpatriotic anyone who would dare to criticize the government’s war plans?
Is there anything inspiring about the nauseating negativity that dominated campaign ads from both parties in this fall’s mid-term elections? Is there anything uplifting about a ratings-obsessed television news media that has become a tragedy-obsessed cheerleading squad for law enforcement and about as skeptical as roadkill?
In Guthrie’s America, this sounds more like the despotism he despised so much that one of his favorite instruments had the words “This Guitar Kills Fascists” printed famously on it.
But Guthrie was no uncompromising neo-hippie, fanatical environmentalist or cynical, knee-jerking libertarian. He knew the government’s purpose and accepted the sometimes dirty jobs that are thrust upon generals and their troops. Just like he tried, in the early 1940s, to rally the world to get rid of Adolf Hitler –in songs like “What Are We Waiting For” –Guthrie probably would have supported the president, the U.S. military and our allies in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his radical henchmen.
It’d be nice to have a true skeptic like Guthrie around these days to remind us that the key to being American cannot be found in the U.S.A. Patriot Act or the Department of Homeland Security; it’s in the backroads of New England, in the Grand Canyon, in the camaraderie of a high school swim meet.
Guthrie’s Declaration of Independence does not instruct Americans to stick flags in the back windows of their SUVs while they tailgate and cut off other drivers at 85 mph; it doesn’t require rooting for the lightning-swift execution of the sniper suspects; it asks us to read books like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and appreciate the vast, beautiful spaces and the freedom to ramble through them – the freedom to sit down and chat with the folks who live there.
Guthrie’s Americanism is exploration, expansion and giving up your space in the line at the supermarket checkout counter to someone who has only got a couple of groceries. It’s knowing who your neighbors are and what they’re all about.
“Well it’s always we ramble that river and I, all along your green valley I’ll work till I die, my land I’ll defend with my life if it be, because my pastures of plenty must always be free,” Guthrie sang in “Pastures of Plenty.”
Of course, Guthrie sang about a lot more than democracy and the American dream. He recorded the standard versions of countless traditional American folk songs, such as “Worried Man Blues” and “Buffalo Skinners.” He sang about shipwrecks, train wrecks and outlaws; about the New Deal, the Grand Coulee Dam and migrant workers. With Leadbelly and Sonny Terry, he sang rollicking, howling, three-in-the-morning anthems to greasy skillets, lovemaking and the making of music itself. He sang lonesome elegies to rambling hobos and dying children. He sang humorous “talking blues” about hard work and fishing. He sang in support of the executed Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
But aside from his tales of the desperation of those Americans who live on “life’s other side,” his savvy tales of crossing back and forth across the U.S. – and his reveling in its human and scenic treasures – may be his most meaningful and valuable contributions to a society he summed up far better than most.
***”When the sun come shining, and I was strolling, and the wheatfields waving and the dustclouds rolling, and the voice come chanting and the fog was lifting, this land was made for you and me.”***
Some have suggested “This Land is Your Land” as an alternative national anthem. But maybe that’s selling the song short –the repetition it would suffer in countless classrooms and sports arenas would rob the song of its power.
No, “This Land is Your Land” shouldn’t be the national anthem, it should be an amendment to the constitution.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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