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

May 25, 2017
· 38 rsvps

Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
· 48 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 93 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 26 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.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 5 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.