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July 21st, 2011
Freethought San Marcos: Remembering Woody Guthrie in the age of Obama

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Woody Guthrie, the song writer, musician, social philosopher, and populist extraordinaire, would have turned 99 this past week (July 14) had he lived.  He died of Huntington’s disease in 1967.  He wrote perhaps thousands of songs, some of which continued to be sung after his death by popular performers, including Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bob Paxton, his son Arlo Guthrie, and many others.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, travelled to California with migrant workers during the dust bowl and then all over the country.  For a while in California, he hosted a live radio program that was very popular for a few years, but Woody did not take kindly to being told what to do or whom to associate with or what he could say, so that job ended.  In 1941, he was hired by the Department of the Interior to write songs about the Columbia River and the dams being built there in connection with a documentary project.  Producing electricity from the flowing waters of the Columbia caught his imagination.

When he saw a news item in the newspaper that offended his sense of social justice, he was inclined to write a song about it.  That’s how “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” came to be written.  A group of Mexican migrant workers were killed as they were sent back to Mexico after harvesting crops in the western US.  He lamented how these people were used to put food on the tables of Americans and their deaths weren’t given a second thought.  Their names weren’t even reported in the news articles.  “All they called them were just deportees.”

You don’t have to agree with everything Woody wrote to appreciate his contribution to American culture.  After all, no two people agree on everything, but the strength of his feeling for the American people cannot be denied.  That feeling is best found, perhaps, in what has become an anthem of populism–”This Land is Your Land.”

words and music by Woody Guthrie

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

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin’  –  I saw a sign there
And that sign said – no tress-passin’
But on the other side  …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

Chorus (2x)

In 2008, from everywhere in the country, the spirits of populists and caring people, and those who spent their lives working for social and economic justice for all were lifted by the election of Barack Obama as President.  At a special pre-inaugural gathering, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and others joined in singing all those verses to Woody’s anthem.  That’s how high expectations were for Obama among those who favor a more compassionate world.  

Such enthusiasm does not exist today.  Obama has thrown in with the wealthy, the corporatists, the bankers, the exploiters, the war profiteers, and he seems to have forgotten the millions of average Americans who are without jobs, without the money to pay their mortgages, without hope for a better future.

I know that Obama faces great opposition, assuming that he cares about Woody’s people, but that is no excuse for not using every ounce of his energy and influence for average Americans, rather than the elite.  If this land was made for us all, it seems that we should have a government at least as good as its people.  I’ve come to wish that at least we had a president that good as well.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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