This Land Was Made for You, Me and Its Critics
With the celebration this month of the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, festivals, academic symposia and new collections of his music are bringing renewed attention to “This Land Is Your Land,” one of the U.S.’s unofficial anthems. And it is becoming more widely recognized that some versions of the song featured lyrics not normally associated with patriotism -- words reflecting Guthrie’s communist beliefs.
What may not be so well-known is that “This Land Is Your Land” belongs to an American tradition of patriotic pieces made by critics of capitalism. The authors of the Pledge of Allegiance and “America the Beautiful” also took a distinctly leftist view of the U.S. economic system.
Make no mistake, Guthrie was a patriot. In May 1941, months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he ended his song “Pastures of Plenty” with the pledge, “My land I’ll defend with my life if it be / ’Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free.” When the war reached the U.S., he volunteered for the Merchant Marine, and in his three voyages across the Atlantic, two ships sank under him, one hit by a torpedo, another sunk by a mine.
Nevertheless, Guthrie was also a Communist sympathizer. Evidence suggests that he never officially joined the party. In an article he wrote for the Communist newspaper People’s World, he deflected the question with humor: “I ain’t a communist necessarily,” he wrote, “but I been in the red all my life.”
One verse of “This Land Is Your Land” that Guthrie apparently never recorded, laments the Depression. “By the relief office, I saw my people -- / As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if / This land was made for you and me.” Another attacks the concept of private property. In a recording he made in the 1940s, Guthrie sang, “There was a big 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.”
Guthrie was following in a line of artistic critics running back to Francis Bellamy, a former Baptist minister and a member of the Society of Christian Socialists, who composed the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing.
Bellamy gave considerable thought to what should go into the Pledge. Most important was the republic for which the flag stands. With the Civil War a living memory, “indivisible” was crucial, too. Then, being a Christian Socialist, he considered “liberty, equality, fraternity” -- ultimately rejecting these in favor of “liberty and justice.”
The following year, Katharine Lee Bates, a Wellesley professor of English and a socialist sympathizer, penned “America the Beautiful.” A little-known stanza in the original 1895 publication critiques the greed of the Gilded Age, concluding: “America! America! / God shed His grace on thee, / Till selfish gain no longer stain / The banner of the free!” Bates not only made fraternity central to her hymn -- “crown thy good with brotherhood” -- but also portrayed her fellow citizens’ drive for “selfish gain” as a “stain” upon freedom’s flag.
In subsequent revisions, Bates toned down the criticism. The final version reads, “America! America! / May God thy gold refine / Till all success be nobleness / And every gain divine!”
That three of our most beloved patriotic texts were written by critics of our economic system speaks well of our freedoms. Criticism of country does not preclude loyalty -- or love.
(John Shaw is a musician and writer in Seattle who is writing a history of America’s national songs. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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