Like a lot of other Americans, when I heard American music after September 11th I wept. It was wrenching and cathartic to sing along with God Bless America and America the Beautiful. But there was one song I never heard, a lilting and simple ode to America that was never played. And as I grieved for those lost I ached to hear that song, I wanted to hear that line about the New York Island.
But I never did. During those dark and sad days, I heard God Bless the U.S.A. and My Country 'Tis of Thee but I never heard This Land is Your Land.
Conservatives are suspicious of that song. As far as they're concerned it's got no place on a patriotic hit parade. One reason: it's composer was Woody Guthrie, an unabashed man of the people (read: possibly Red). He wrote about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, and he captured with simplicity and clarity the hurt and hunger of the ordinary American. George W. Bush has a very limited view of what is patriotic; if you share his view, you are. If you differ, you are not. Woody Guthrie was different, so in our dark and grief stricken hours Guthrie's beautiful ode to the nation he loved went unplayed.
That was rectified Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In a moment of pure perfection, Pete Seeger sang it for all of us with his grandson and Bruce Springsteen by his side. In that one moment, the new administration re-enfranchised an entire part of American culture that Republicans had done their best to marginalize and criminalize. Over the years they called them unpatriotic and they called them Commies and they did their best to find ways to disgrace them, those freedom singing, civil rights marching, anti war crusaders who formed the bedrock of American folk music. Pete Seeger is the last of them. Leadbelly is long gone, Paul Robeson is gone, so too is Woody Guthrie. But their passion and perseverence lives on in the old man who sang before his president in a knit hat and jeans. Despite blacklisting by his industry, death threats by his fellow Americans and harassment from his own government Pete Seeger kept on singing. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, his president welcomed him back.
Like the activist he always was and always will be, the 89 year old folk singer didn't just sing the first two gentle verses of This Land Is Your Land, the ones about wandering and following your footsteps. That would have been a cop-out, and there's never been any cop-out in the man who helped organize Paul Robeson's concert at Peekskill. This Land is Your Land was written for and about ordinary Americans. It's an affirmation of the same subversive ideas first written in revolution in Philadelphia, that this land, these rights, this freedom, is for all of us, rich and poor:
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.
Barack Obama answered the last lingering doubt expressed in that song with a resounding yes. Yes, Pete Seeger, yes Woody Guthrie. This land is made for you and me once more.