I bet you didn't learn these lyrics in grade school when they taught you to sing This Land is Your Land:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old last Saturday. A troubadour who wandered the country during the Great Depression, Woody remains one of the most influential American songwriters of all time, inspiring folks like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Pete Seeger. He recorded hundreds of songs and wrote lyrics for thousands more. His songs reflect his experience growing up in Oklahoma and traveling throughout the United States during the Great Depression. His songs reflect America.
Yes, as through this world I've wandered, I've seen lots of funny men,
Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam,
You will never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.
For me, Woody's influence grows more from what he wrote than the amount he wrote. His was an often humorous, often earnest, message about what it was to be a hard workin' person in America. He was a humanist. He demanded justice and he demanded fairness. He gave voice to Arkies and Okies, Mexican migrant workers, and union maids alike. He hated those who benefited from inequity-from fascists to racists to bankers who turned farmers into dustbowl refugees.
When dust storms are sailing, and crops they are failing,
I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.
I check up your shortage and bring down your mortgage,
Singin' I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I
I take comfort in the crackling of Woody's recordings from eighty years ago and lyrics distilled from the Dustbowl. They seem familiar, those songs about foreclosures, deportations, poverty, and getting a raw deal.
At the same time, their resonance is unsettling. Didn't we do this once? Didn't we solve these problems already? Haven't we already fought these battles? Yes. We did. Much of what Woody parodied, derided, and fought with his guitar wasn't just the natural condition of hard workin' people, it was the product of capitalism run amok. By the time he achieved fame, the causes of those problems-if not the problems themselves-had been mitigated by the New Deal, including federal regulation of the banking and financial sectors.
Eighty years on, we've gone out of our way to exhume Woody's muse. We dismantled financial regulations and the regulatory apparatus. We got familiar results: rising income inequality, a foreclosure crisis, persistent unemployment-an economy that increasingly appears to work for a very narrow jolly banker segment of the populace, leaving the rest of us in the dust.
You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees
But the familiarity of Woody's lyrics doesn't stop there. Unions are busted and look like they may remain so. The debate over immigration consigns undocumented workers to an undifferentiated mass known as "illegal." And throughout this country laws are being ever more directed at preventing individuals from exercising their fundamental freedoms instead of protecting them.
Every state in this union us migrants have been,
We work in this fight, and we'll fight till we win.
Maybe that's why when Occupiers chant, "Whose streets? Our streets!" I hear "I went walking down a ribbon of highway . . . ." Maybe that's why "We are the 99%" signs look to me like the lyrics to Hard Travelin'. And maybe that's why people all over the country gathered last weekend to sing Woody's songs and celebrate his centennial.