Reflecting on Woody Guthrie

Labor Day in the USA does not have the punch that May Day has in other countries, to hold up the rights of working people.  Giving a thought to it as more than a before school, last day of summer, I listened this weekend to Going Down the Road with Woody Guthrie: A Centennial Celebration  This is a tribute to Woodie Guthrie on American Routes, a weekly two-hour public radio program produced in New Orleans, presenting a broad range of American music. .

My father, Leland Jackson, liked Woody Guthrie as though he became a Lutheran hospital chaplain in his career and before that a parish pastor, as a young man during the Depression, he “bummed” around the country as he put it and worked in fields in California and points between there and his home in South Dakota.  He told a story about his father, who felt the call to move west as in the family in the Grapes of Wrath.  My Grandpa Jackson, at the entrance to their home on the farm, reached down and picked up dirt and let it fall through his fingers, saying “This has never failed me yet.”  They had a slough, a low moist area on the farm, where vegetables would grow and they were not far from a lake.

I learned by listening to the radio program that Guthrie’s father’s newly purchased farm was set on fire when his sister was ironing over a kerosense stove.  She burned to death and in a day or so his father did too, though Woody suspected his father set himself on fire because he was so upset.  His mother became mentally ill and all the children went to separate foster homes.  Woody had a job taking care of a hen but he was bored and took to the highways.  I suspect he had what is called post traumatic stress, and never got over that early trauma.  Often artists are born out of difficult circumstances.  When I did temporary office work when I was younger, I wrote a lot of poetry.  I thought of putting it together in a collection called “Out of the Blue” and perhaps I still will.

Studs Terkel, interviewed in the radio program, said This Land is Your Land should be our national anthem.  It was written to include everyone of all classes.  There is one Native American verse I’m currently aware of which Pete Seeger includes which is included below; also a counter melody by a Lutheran musician, Bret Hesla.

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 went 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.

I roamed and I rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparking sands of her diamond deserts,
All around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, then I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting,
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 there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that said, “Private Property,”
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 my freedom highway,
Nobody living can make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
(c) 1956 and 1958 Ludlow Music Inc.

Additional verses by Pete Seeger

Maybe you’ve been working as hard as you’re able,
But you’ve just got crumbs from the rich man’s table,
And maybe you’re thinking, was it truth or fable,
That this land was made for you and me.

Woodland and grassland and river shoreline,
To everything living, even little microbes,
Fin, fur, and feather, we’re all here together,
This land was made for you and me.

Native American verse:

This land is your land, but it once was my land,
Until we sold you Manhattan Island.
You pushed our Nations to the reservations;
This land was stole by you from me.

Counter melody by Bret Hesla ©

This land is more than your land or mine
It’s done fine on its own for several billion years
It’s given life to us all
And someday when we die
It will be made from you and me.

It’s fascinating to read Wikipedia’s biography of Woody Guthrie.  I don’t
know if I got all the facts straight above here from listening to the radio
show as they are a little different on Wikipedia but to read about his life is
to read about a movement and a time:

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