This Land is Our Land

The working class has always created its own art, of and for itself. America, like its international counterparts, has a long tradition of grassroots working class art and one of the most well known purveyors of this tradition is Woody Guthrie. Most Americans have an image of Guthrie - the ragged, Dust Bowl refugee Oakie hopping trains with his guitar. In schools across the country and spanning several generations, children have sung "This Land Is Your Land" and celebrated the hugeness and beauty of America.This_Machine_Kills_fascists.jpg Though this song is often seen as a patriotic anthem, Woody saw the song very differently.

 

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Woody was so tired of hearing Berlin's paean to American exceptionalism, the Kate Smith version of which was a huge hit at the time, that he wrote a very different kind of American song. Though the sanitized version of “This Land Is Your Land” sung by school children omits them, Guthrie originally wrote several verses that were critical of private property and sympathetic to communism.

One of these lesser-sung verses goes:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie had lived through the brutalities of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and had little sympathy with the propertarian pretensions of the American obsession with land ownership. Guthrie had seen whole families displaced by bankers’ greed and government indifference. He recognized capitalism as a system that did not and never would work for the working class. Guthrie wrote of the "big high wall" that tried to stop working people from reaching security by labeling all that it enclosed as "private property." But, as Guthrie points out in a tongue-in-cheek way, “the back side didn't say nothing" and the land enclosed by the wall was in fact "made for you and me."

This type of rhetoric goes precisely against the grain of the usual nativism that is conjured up by the near-religious tone of most patriotic songs about America. Guthrie rejected the inherent inequality of capitalism, private property, and nationalism in favor of a communistic image of a land without walls that is "made for you and me." The juxtaposition of the private property sign and the final line is both salient and intentional: property is not an individualistic thing but is rather a resource to be held in common for the common good.

In a second, less-sung verse, Guthrie sings:

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?

Rather than using his words to focus on the usual vague notions of national beauty or an ill-defined freedom, Woody chose to carry the banner of the poor and the hungry. When he asks, "is this land made for you and me?" Guthrie is questioning the very idea of American liberty, from the founding of the nation up to the point when he put ink on paper. We can take this critique right up into our own time. Is a land that heaps wealth and power on the few while letting the many struggle and sometimes starve actually made for and by us as we have heard so many times before? Or, is this a land built by capitalism for capitalism, with the workers left out in the cold?

Woody Guthrie was a fellow traveler with the American Communist Party and knew both intellectually and first hand that it was the latter representation of America that held true. No amount of singing and careful propaganda could erase the suffering and inequality of American capitalism. For Guthrie, real patriotism meant celebrating workers and their communities. This version of patriotism holds as its highest ideal not capitalism and acquisition of property but the building and support of a real, unified national community. This community would reject the greed of the few in favor of the needs of the many. With a community like that, we could all truthfully sing “this land was made for you and me.”

Ryan Briles is a writer, activist,and worker currently living in New York City.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 55 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 52 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.