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. 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.