"This Land Is Your Land?"
days ago I was asked to be part of a program next month commemorating the 60th
anniversary of Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land Is Your Land." This
got me thinking.
thought first of the late Jim Dunn. At a conference in Ohio in the mid-'80s, Jim
was leading a group of us in song. I asked him if he could lead us in singing
This Land Is Your Land. His response was something to this effect (I still
remember his words): "Well, I've been working with some Native American
people in the Southwest recently, and they really don't like this song, so I'd
rather not sing it."
time since then, whenever this song is sung, I've thought of Jim and what he
said back then.
when I received a request to be part of this program I started meditating on
what I would say if I accepted it.
what I've come to. What I would/will probably do is to begin by singing an
additional verse to this song that I hope Guthrie's descendants, those who knew
him, and our pro-justice movement generally, would agree should be added. This
is the proposed new verse:
land was stolen from the Native Peoples And they continue to suffer still, It's
time to right this, it's time for justice, United, we can, we must, we
some personal irony to all of this. Five days ago I began a water-only fast in
connection with the urgent efforts to free Leonard Peltier. We're in crunch time
right now as this is written. Peltier, innocent of the crime he has been in
prison for since 1976, has his best chance of being released through a grant of
executive clemency from Clinton before he leaves office. I am sure that my being
on this fast, the constant thoughts and/or actions about Peltier and Indigenous
People as a result, contributed to my ability to even conceive of writing a
proposed new verse to Guthrie's song.
inspiration to write this verse literally came while I was in the shower. As I
jumped out, dripping wet, I rushed to find a pen and something to write on so
that I didn't lose the words which were coming through me. I grabbed a manila
envelope in the hall outside the bathroom and wrote them down. Then, after
drying off and getting dressed, I looked inside the envelope. Inside was a
picture of my late brother-in-law, Joe Califf, as a young child wearing a very
full "Indian headdress," with his arms folded, looking very serious,
obviously posed to look like an "Indian chief."
wife's, Joe's parents, were not racists. Indeed, they were long-time
progressives going back to the '30s. Until they died, they were as active as
they could be in support of a wide range of pro-justice issues, including issues
specific to people of color. And yet, back in the '40s and '50s, when this
picture, and Guthrie's song, were taken and written, there seems to have been
very little consciousness on the Left about issues of importance to Indigenous
what does all this mean?
like This Land Is Your Land. I still sing it, even as, every time I do, I think
about what Jim Dunn said. Maybe I've been wrong to continue singing it, but it's
hard to deal with everything that is racist, or sexist, or heterosexist that
we're exposed to in this society. Besides, I don't think Guthrie meant in any
way to express white chauvinism. My hunch is that, if he were alive today, he
would take Jim Dunn's words seriously and maybe do up a new verse himself, or
revise the song.
he's not alive, and it's incumbent on those of us who are to carry on the
pro-justice tradition in every way that we can. One of those ways is to
"correct," upgrade, if you will, songs, expressions, cultural
patterns, ways of speaking and doing, that are offensive to those long-exploited
or oppressed. And we need to do so in consultation with the people in those
hope to hear from my Native American friends on what they think of all of this.
We should all be calling the White House comment line every day to express our
view that Peltier should be granted executive clemency before Clinton leaves
office. Call 202-456-1111, and press "O" to bypass the messages and go
directly to an operator. More information can be obtained from the Leonard
Peltier Defense Committee, 785-842-5774, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.freepeltier.org.
Ted Glick is National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (www.ippn.org) and author of the recently-published, Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society. He can be reached at futurehopeTG@aol.com, or at P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.