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This Land is...

June 14, 2015

 "This land is your land This land is my land

From California to the New York island

From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and Me"

 

The words to "This Land is Your Land" were written by Woodie Guthrie in 1940, and were recorded and sung by many - including myself as a young boy. I sang it in school and in concert with the Peter Paul and Mary record that spun on my family's turntable. The song is a modern day version of America the Beautiful, and it paints a picture of all that is great about this country and the opportunity it holds for its people.

 

"As I was walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me"

 

 


There is a certainty to the first few stanzas. The song has a Manifest Destiny like feel - America as a place where untold dreams and riches come true, and when I sang along as a boy I KNEW that America was the most beautiful country - the greatest country - in the world. I knew that happiness lay ahead on the sun-kissed horizon. 

 

 

"I've roamed and rambled and I 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

 

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting

This land was made for you and me"

 

That is where most recorded versions of the song end. But the lyrics, as they were written by Guthrie, continue. In the words that follow, Guthrie questions and casts doubt that America is perfectly beautiful.

 

"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

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people

By the relief office I seen my people

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land 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"

 

Guthrie saw that the obvious wealth and prosperity in America overshadowed the unsightly poverty and failure; that scattered among the promises of tomorrow were pockets of pained trying to forget their yesterday; that among the pilgrims riding on highways of beautiful landscapes were lonesome ghosts wandering on lost trailways.

 

As an adult I now work in a part of the city that reflects the America Guthrie writes about. When I park my car outside my office in the morning, I often hear a Cambodian man singing in contentment as he tends to his backyard garden; but then I step over crops of empty nips and scratch tickets that litter the street, tossed from passing cars in disapppointment. I see hardened and hard-working bus drivers who work for wages arriving at the adjacent bus depot; but then I see lost souls wander by my office window with their earthly belongings crammed into tattered backpacks and shopping bags. I see children walk home from the neighborhood school laughing and singing together; but then I see children vandalize property and hear them utter words that they look much too young to know.

 

America may indeed be the greatest country in the world for you and me. But when Woodie Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land," he had his eyes wide open. Guthrie saw an America not for what it can be or what we want it to be. Woodie Guthrie saw America for what it is - a land of hope and dreams and a land of broken dreams.

 

That is the real America. It is just not always easy to talk (or sing) about.

 

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