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Jul 4, 18

Thoughts on “This Land is Your Land,” Promoting Radical Politics, and the Fourth of July

An editorial about founding everyday opportunities to have radical discussions with people.

The Fourth is here. Every year, people grill hot dogs, swill cheap beer, and blow things up in the sky in a rousing celebration of what it means to be American. The songs, like Christmas Carols, invariably repeat themselves, year after year: “God Bless America”, “America the Beautiful”, “This Land is Your Land”, and “The Star-Spangle Banner” of course. If you’re unlucky, you may even get to hear a bit of that uber-jingoist country-rock tune from the Reagan era, “God Bless the U.S.A.”

It’s always a weird day for an anarchist, anti-authoritarian, autonomist, or leftist, who’s supposed to put international solidarity with the working class over national pride while everyone’s out in the streets having fun. Personally, I’ve never been bothered with being a hybrid; enjoying music, barbecue, and fireworks for their own sake is no more wrong for a leftist than exchanging presents around a decorated tree is wrong for an atheist. I’ve been a militant atheist since high school, and I still love Christmas. It’s also hard to draw laypeople into the radical movement if you don’t make some token efforts to meet them halfway. Eating burgers and drinking Budweiser seems like a pretty easy way to get that done. So yeah, I’ve never felt guilty about celebrating the Fourth, even if I have some qualms about our country and its history. Perhaps my annual tradition of burning an American flag helps the medicine go down easier, but to be honest, I’ve skipped that a couple times in the past few years.

Of all the Fourth Carols we’ll hear this year, none seems more problematic to me than “This Land is Your Land.” It’s a song I remember hearing blasted from red-white-and-blue-bedecked floats in my Virginia hometown every year, on which a large man in a cowboy hat pointed and waved at the crowd to the beat. I remember pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon full of hard candies for three miles with my Cub Scout Troop, and hearing that song over and over and over again. The simple overexposure led me to loathe it.

Later, when I was in high school, I loathed it based on my nascent anarchist politics. It seemed a crass, tasteless glorification of our settler colonial history, a catchy vindication of Manifest Destiny. By the end of high school I’d learned that the man who’d written the ballad was a good old-fashioned American Communist, and that two subversive, progressive verses had been omitted from our common modern version. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an anarchist, and I’ve got my gripes with the Communists, but it seems to me one of the most powerfully subversive stories we can tell, one that will really resonate with normie Americans, is that one can be both a good ole boy and a commie. Of course, this endeared me to the song in a way I’d never been endeared before. But yet, there was a lingering unease with it for one simple reason: this land wasn’t made for anyone. People just showed up and started living on it, and by that measure, the Red folks were here first, so if the land could metaphorically be said to be made for anyone, it would be them.

The songwriter was Woody Guthrie, if you didn’t know, and he was a complicated figure.

There’s a meme somewhere on the internet of a white man in a button down shirt and slacks, shuffling, head down, along a sidewalk in the suburbs. I don’t know what movie or show it’s originally from; the subtitle reads, “when I found out Woody Guthrie was a Communist.” I imagine that’s how a lot of people really feel. But if his radicalism is a deal-breaker for many non-radicals, it’s certainly not a free pass for those of us on the real Left. If his person is too complicated to be palatable to the average American, we on the Left fare no better.

Woody was a notoriously nebulous figure. In fact, he was never an official card-carrying member of the Communist Party. When pressed on the matter, he would often respond, “I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.” Young Woody was a run-of-the-mill rural white racist, in many ways, up until a change of heart which, to all evidence, seems authentic. He definitely took a firm anti-racist stance later in his life. He stopped using racial slurs (even if he never stopped using the simple language of the working class, which to our modern ears sounds offensive), and he went on to fight for racial equality and cultural respect for Black Americans (and First Nations people) in a number of ways, a number of times.

Woody was always big on working class unity, as well as social and economic justice. The original lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” reflect this:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —

[This land was made for you and me.]

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple

By the Relief Office I saw my people —

As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if

[This land was made for you and me.]

The first verse shows that private property is an invention by the clever use of flipping over the sign bearing the same term. The second declares the poor on welfare to be the “people” of the speaker, showing sympathy and solidarity with the “hungry”. That’s already way out of the wheelhouse of the normal use and understanding of the song. It might further surprise you to learn that “This Land is Your Land” was originally written as a satire—Woody, sick and tired of hearing “God Bless America”on the radio, much as my prepubescent self was sick and tired of hearing “This Land is Your Land”, penned a song whose verses all ended with the line “God blessed America for me,” a stab at the grandiose egoism of “God Bless America”. The last line was changed to “This land was made for you and me” on the eve of America’s entry into WWII, and first recorded a few years later, when the war was in a fever pitch; Guthrie probably perceived that a united front against fascism was an urgently needed thing, even if one had to swallow a bit of patriotism to make it stick.

Anarchists like myself (and other radicals) may be wondering whether to promote the radical history and version of the song, or to abandon it altogether. You may be wondering why we would abandon it if there’s a radical history to promote, but the simple reason is because the song remains problematic, even with its radical history and lyrics. A persistent, lingering problem that lines questioning the validity of private property and signaling solidarity with the poor won’t solve. A problem, in short, of settler colonialism.

Would it not be something entirely different to see a chorus of First Nations people sing the song? Even more so if they sang it to an all-First Nations audience, where both “you”and “me” meant indigenous people who were here before Europeans? The unease that the hypothetical produces in most people speaks to its truth. The song’s perspective, even if it includes an awareness of the song’s origins as a critique of jingoist ballads, even if it includes the original radical verses, is that of white colonialists. White radical leftist colonialists, perhaps, but white colonialists nevertheless. The song simply and unfortunately takes the side of the colonizers, glossing over the colonized. Lakota Sioux chief Henry Crow Dog pointed this out to Pete Seeger, another good old-fashioned American Communist folk singer, in 1968, after which Seeger had another version written with the line, “This land was stole by you from me.”

Woody was raised near large First Nations communities in Oklahoma, and had a great deal of familiarity with aspects of their culture from an early age, not least their music. He should have known better. But it’s worth considering the place of the song in modern society, in a radical historical context: yes, it fails on one front, and no small front at that, but it’s a tool of the right that we can usurp, appropriate, and make our own, use in the constant popularity contest that the far-right and the far-left are engaging in today. It seems unlikely that any far-right groups will embrace the song, despite its blatant patriotism, if they know about its author and origins. Let’s not fall into the same trap. Let’s say, when questioned by or about First Nations people, “Yes, this song fails miserably on that front, but to include Black people, Brown people, queer people, trans people, new immigrants, normies, and in order to raise and radicalize the bourgeois national conscience, we use the blunt weapon that we have.”

Because yes, Woody certainly should have known better. And patriotism is definitely a crock of shit. But you can’t win em all, all the time. Who among us should not have known better, on some subject, in some place, at some time? And who among us doesn’t think that our radical leftist ideas are in dire need of percolating to the top of American culture, whether they are explicitly anarchist or explicitly Communist? There are different ways to go about that, to be sure. Some people prefer to treat anything like the Fourth, like “This Land is Your Land,” as if it transmits the plague. But I, for one, will be eating a hot dog, and drinking cheap beer and blowing things up, and if I happen to hear that particular song, I’ll likely turn to the person next to me and tell them, “You know, this song was originally written as satire? And the lyrics originally included critiques of private property and expressed solidarity with the poor?” And they’ll respond, “Really? I had no idea.” “Yes,” I’ll say, “Woody Guthrie was a good old-fashioned American Communist. Of course, the song’s told from a settler-colonial perspective, which totally disregards First Nations people,” I’ll continue, biting into my hot dog.

“But then, you can’t win ’em all, all the time.”

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