Our "one nation, under God" has from its first years been a hotbed of contentious, bitter partisan brawls. Most of us can't even conceive of an election as violent and nasty in its rhetoric as that of 1800 (or 1824 or 1828), and if George W. Bush finds himself aggrieved by the shots taken at him by both sides in our recent plebiscite, he can find some comfort in reading just how much more terribly, personally, and negatively was lampooned the winning candidate of 1864 both by his own party and by his opponents - that of course would be one Abraham Lincoln.
Yet from this contentiousness has emerged a country that somehow manages both to function and to reform itself on a regular basis better than just about any other - and I do not mean that in any shallow jingoistic way but rather as a close student of history. Our polarized factions - and take your pick from any era of U.S. history, be it federalists vs. states' rightsers, or slavers vs free staters, or Populists vs. mainstream parties, or are modern right wingers vs. left wingers - seem to function in an almost dialectical manner, keeping our politics in a perpetually uncomfortable state of imbalance that somehow works.
While it has always been a favorite pastime of every party and faction to accuse its rivals of a lack of patriotism (as defined of course within the narrow confines of one's own beliefs), the objective fact remains that the country has been well-served by a wide variety of its citizens of every political and religious stripe. As JFK observed in his speech to the Houston convention of ministers in 1960 asserting that his Catholicism did not cast a shadow over his patriotism and should not disqualify his presidential candidacy, "Nobody asked my brother Joe about his religion when he boarded the bomber that exploded and killed him; nobody asked for my religious affiliation when I took command of a PT boat."
That's why I often wonder what Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie might have had to say to each other had they ever sat down and discussed their respective compositions, "God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land." As most people know, Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant (as a child) who achieved likely the longest-running successful career of any American songwriter, and his "God Bless America" was his fervent anthem both of love for his adopted country and a proud statement that patriotism was not limited to the native born.
Most also know that Guthrie, populist/socialist./radical rabble rouser, took exception to what he saw as the shallow and superficial banality and essential falseness of Berlin's song and penned "This Land" as an angry leftist retort. Where Berlin's song is, like "America The Beautiful," a prayer - as in may God bless America - for continuing guidance toward a millennial perfection, Guthrie's piece, especially with the now usually omitted verses, was a cry for reform, for a land that did not belong implicitly to the shadowy image of an elite but rather to The Common Man. The verses not often sung today are here:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Ironically, perhaps, neither composer seemed to see that there respective songs were two sides of the same coin, essentially making the same assertion, albeit with different emphases.
Both songs, of course, are crown jewels in our country's catalog of patriotic songs.
And that is why this week's videos of Woody's masterwork are all from absolute musical heavyweights. Here is Woody's own recording, an exquisite piece of simplicity and understatement::
Here is the KT version from Goin' Places, still my favorite for its stately, unrushed, majestic rhythm and pacing - and I love the way Dave's voice breaks at the end:
For many, the PP&M version was the first one that they heard, and that trio did a fine, sincere uptempo reading of the song on (I believe) their first album [4/12/09] - original recording of PP&M was removed for CopyVio - so many years later, here's the group in Japan in 1990]:
Johnny Cash could turn any song into classic rockabilly, as he does here with the Guthrie tune:
Finally - while I wasn't a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" interpretations of folk songs - he has always had a way with "This Land," and the Boss's version from his 1985 "Born In The USA" tour is I think his best and one of the best I've ever heard:
And an update here on 1/19/09 - yesterday on the National Mall in the concert celebrating the imminent inauguration of Barack Obama - Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Pete's grandson Tao Rodriguez perform a stirring version - using all of the verses:
In whatever version one prefers, I have always felt that this is the quintessential American modern folk song. It doesn't matter how much of cliche it may have seemed to become - it is American idealism at its purest and simplest, whatever patriot is singing it, of whatever political persuasion.
And further...May 1, 2013
I discovered this video recently; it was uploaded to YouTube six months after this article first appeared. From 1976, an assemblage of folk royalty - former Weavers Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo, now an elder statesman of folk music, Judy Collins (who turns 74 today) with an introduction by the irrepressible writer, scholar, and gadfly Studs Terkel, singing all the verses that WG retained in his final version of the song.