Message 99, Summer Songs, This Land is Your Land, 7-1-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

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Woodie Guthrie, one of the 20th century’s acclaimed folk music artists, was born in 1922 in Okemah, Oklahoma.  As he grew up in Okemah, he experienced firsthand its oil boom years and sudden crash when the oil ran out.  Drilling and oil companies quickly departed and left the town shaken and largely unemployed.

On top of those experiences, Guthrie came of age just as the Great Depression hit.  He married and had several children.  But in the midst of an oil bust, a national depression, and the extreme drought of the dust bowl years, Guthrie could not find work to support his family.  And so he took to the road – heading to California – to find work and thus send money to his wife and kids.  California, at the very edge of the symbolic American frontier, was viewed (as it often still is) as a land of promise – a golden state of warm weather, lush agriculture and buzzing commercial activity.

Guthrie became part of the greatest migration in American history – over 400,000 homeless people left their Midwest homes in the 1930’s, desperate in their search for the elusive American dream.  On that homeless journey across the west, Guthrie found fame among the dust bowl refugees, or “Okies” as they were called.  His songs about those years – the desperation, hope and fears of people decimated by the depression, defined his folk identity.

Guthrie found a different California from what he expected – one dominated by greed, intolerance, racism and a gaping gulf between the haves and the have-nots.  He found few differences from the dog eat dog ways of the oil fields he had left.  Money and wealth were the lubricant of the culture.  Poor migrant workers were at the lowest of the social strata – scorned for their lack of culture, their poverty, their dirty, dejected and sweaty appearance.  These Okies from the dust bowl Midwest replaced Hispanic workers and were demeaned as a result.  Guthrie, however, found work at a Los Angeles radio station – writing and singing the kinds of songs popular with the expanding migrant population.

His fame grew so that he eventually moved with his family to New York City where he was feted by that city’s liberal elite.   He became a noted song writer, novelist and poet.  In 1941, he was hired by the New Deal Arts project to document his dust bowl travels and experiences.  His songs, novels like the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and photos by Dorothea Lange, whose haunting images document that exodus, all these seared into the American consciousness the face of grinding and hopeless poverty.  Sadly, it is said that such poverty only resonated with the greater public because dust bowl refugees were largely white.  Even so, Guthrie was their figurative spokesperson – one who evoked the pain and yearnings of people who literally had nothing.

In 1940, Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” had become hugely popular – one made even more famous by Kate Smith’s regular radio performance of the piece.  Guthrie, however, was offended by the song’s hypocrisy and lack of truth.  Its first verse sings, “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.  Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:  God Bless America.”

How was America free or fair, Guthrie wondered?  To those born in the midst of the dust bowl, to the workers laid off and then standing in long bread lines just to survive, Guthrie and others asked if a person is really free if there is no opportunity to enjoy it?  Is America truly fair when the circumstances of one’s birth and parentage determine one’s lot in life – instead of how hard one works, or wants to work?

And so he wrote the song “This Land is Your Land”, one recently re-recorded by Neil Young and the Crazy Horse Band for their new album “Americana”.  On the album, Neil Young reinterprets classic American folk songs – like “Oh Susanna” and “My Darling Clementine” – that are well loved but little understood.  And Guthrie’s song “This Land…” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood.  Young interprets the folk songs with a hard rock sound that gives them a more contemporary feel.  Young purposefully included “This Land” on his new album as a statement that little in our nation has changed since the 1940’s.  “Americana” is now fourth in overall sales as listed on the Billboard top 100.  Let’s listen to the song and, as we do, you may follow the lyrics on the back of your programs…

Click here to read the lyrics to the Neil Young song while you listen.

Guthrie’s song “This Land” challenges a 1930s and 1940s America that was increasingly being bought and sold; an America that stood for equality, justice and liberty but often did not live up to those ideals.

The three most pointed verses, the ones speaking about a land of “No Trespassing” signs and lines of people forming outside of relief offices – in the shadow of a steeple – these were intentionally removed from most published versions of the song.  Guthrie was later accused of being a socialist and communist – a freely used epithet against anyone who expressed concern for the poor.  An examination of Guthrie’s original manuscript and his original recording – produced long before the sanitized version became popular – all contain the controversial verses.  They change the entire meaning of the song.

As a fourth grade kid, I remember singing the song at a school assembly – but these verses were not included.  Indeed, until listening to the song recently on iTunes – after learning about Young’s “Americana” album – I had never heard those verses nor understood the song’s intended meaning.   The deletion of those verses has led many people to believe the song is a patriotic hymn of praise for our nation.

To the contrary, Guthrie intended, as Young does now, to point out the irony of the ideal that America belongs to everyone.  Implied in his lyrics is the notion that America may be out of tune with its Christian and democratic values.  Guthrie and Young make a bold statement: despite the willful privatization and exclusion that goes on in our nation, America is not truly owned by the wealthy or by large corporations.  It was made by the creator for all of us.  It was created and founded as a land open to all.  “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” this nation has long vowed.  This land is your land – a land of opportunity to the children of slaves, migrant field workers, laid off steelworkers, single moms fighting to feed their families.  For Guthrie, it is not enough to say America is a land of opportunity, it must actually be so.

On this Sunday preceding the Fourth of July holiday, it’s important to heed the message of Guthrie’s song.  What is REAL patriotism?  Much like authentic spirituality or genuine love, such patriotism does not assert untrue boasts.  It is humble and well aware of national flaws.  Real patriotism is unafraid to confess the many ways a nation does not live up to its ideals.  Indeed, real patriotism calls the nation – much like spiritual contemplation challenges us as individuals – to change and grow for the better.  America, like us, must constantly aspire to be one that equals its stated promise.  “This Land Is Your Land” speaks this voice of authentic patriotism.

The American Political Science Association recently issued a report claiming that the wealthy have an outsized voice in American government – a voice that leaders and politicians of both parties readily heed.  Citizens with lower to moderate wealth are speaking with a whisper, the report asserted.  It concluded by saying, “progress toward realizing American ideals of democracy may have stalled, and even, in some places, reversed.”

As if to prove this point, the Washington Times – a strongly conservative paper, noted that the May statistics on giving to the two presidential campaigns showed almost one third of all funds collected by the Obama campaign came from those giving over $10,000.  Almost half of all donations to the Romney campaign came from such donors.  Much as in Woodie Guthrie’s day, money speaks.  There is a “No Trespassing” sign erected at the gateway to American government – one that prevents the poor, marginal and middle class citizen to cross.  Does this land belong to me and to you, or is it just an illusion?

Offering a viewpoint similar to that of the Political Scientists, The Economist magazine – one also noted for its strongly pro-business and pro-capitalist opinions – claims that there is a growing income disparity in the United States.  As an example, thirty years ago the average compensation of the top 100 business chief executives in the US was 30 times that of the average worker.  Today, top 100 CEO pay is over 1000 times the pay of the average worker.  Such rising pay inequality is reflected across the workforce.  American corporations used to be agents of upward mobility for workers, the magazine noted.  One gained an entry level position and, through loyalty, hard work and skill, could rise to the highest levels.  An individual often worked his or her entire life for one company.  Today, that is rarely the case with corporations turning to individuals graduating from elite colleges and graduate schools, instead of promoting those from entry positions.

The American education system is also no longer one of equality, The Economist noted.  The system is increasingly stratified by class, with poor kids attending schools with limited resources while the wealthy attend schools with vastly greater resources.  Children born today have opportunities in life based on the educational level of their parents – and that is highly dependent on one’s economic class.  Children born to wealthy parents have far greater opportunities to succeed.  Children born to parents of low or moderate income have sharply limited opportunities.  This is in stark contrast to how it once was.  The Economist concludes its editorial by saying, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style, class-based society.”

My friends, this is a deeply spiritual issue.  The greatest of history’s spiritual leaders all promoted issues of economic fairness.  Jesus was a radical for his time – he often attacked the elites of his day and their hypocrisy.  Many theologians believe his revolutionary ideas about poverty and wealth were what really led to his arrest and execution.  Elites of the time loved to brag about the size of their offering, they used the Temple as a space for profit making, they cheated the poor, ignored the needy and abandoned the sick.  Do not be arrogant or haughty, the New Testament tells the wealthy – give liberally and never place your trust in money.

The Old Testament implores the rich to speak up for the poor who cannot speak for themselves.  The Jewish prophet Ezekiel clearly states that the real sin of Sodom – verses ignored by many fundamentalists – is “that Sodom was arrogant, overfed and unconcerned…they did not help the poor and needy.”  Muhammad said those who fail to liberally give to the poor are sinful and not true Muslims.  The Buddha taught that charity is the highest of spiritual ideals.  Gandhi’s movement was one to empower India’s poor – no matter their religion.  Mother Theresa devoted her life to the care for the poorest of humans – the untouchables of Calcutta, India.

Spiritually, each of us knows that selfish living is a zero sum game.  We enrich our bodies at the risk of our souls and our collective community.  We become people who do not love, care for or support the needs of others.  Moral imagination calls for a re-examination of how success is achieved.  Cooperation and mutual support is the key to individual and national well being.  And that has always been the great strength of this nation – that the American dream was founded on the idea that given freedom of opportunity, the vast majority of citizens, working together, can realize an enjoyable middle class life – a house, a car, adequate food, occasional vacations, and college education for the kids.  But the foundations on which that American dream was built are crumbling – unequal school resources, expensive health care, college costs out of reach, and limited upward mobility in employment.

Indeed, that is the spiritual and patriotic message implicit in Guthrie’s and Young’s song.  Wealth and capitalism are not despised or attacked.  In a capitalist economy, not everyone will equally prosper.  But the American dream has never been based on equality of wealth, but on equality of opportunity.

Wealth and capitalism are implicitly and ironically supported in Guthrie’s song.  A return to ideals of fairness and opportunity for every person who wishes to work hard is a means to protect capitalism.  Unless the worst excesses of rampant, selfish greed are held in check, we risk the outcome that The Economist magazine predicts – a class based economy that stagnates and eventually collapses.

With such a decline, America risks the loss of its vibrant diversity and upward mobility that fosters innovation, creativity and a fertile economy.  Class based economies waste the inherent intelligence and expertise locked in the minds of those who cannot rise through lack of a decent education or limited access to the levers of power.  Great cultures like ancient Rome and 19th century Great Britain arguably lost their great power status largely because they perpetuated class based systems that stifled inclusion and opportunity.  Indeed, in a recent study, France is now ranked higher in opportunity for upward mobility than the United States.  Rising inequality of income and education puts American capitalism at risk.  And that puts us all – rich and poor – in jeopardy.  Even worse, we risk becoming a hollow nation – one that comforts itself with false patriotism while the reality is something far different.

The ultimate fear is that America will lose its evolving spiritual ethic that has always cherished justice and equality.  America has never been perfect but is has, from its earliest days, been a place that increasingly offered upward mobility, freedom and opportunity to each citizen.  In the shadow of our steeples, we must not lose our concern for the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised.  We must not lose our sense of fair play and belief in the intrinsic worth of every person.  We must continue to foster inspiring life examples of men like Lincoln born to illiterate parents in the backwoods of Kentucky, like Reagan who rose from a childhood in rural Illinois – born to an alcoholic shopkeeper dad, or to an Obama who defied centuries of racism and rose as a biracial son of a single mom – all these men ascending to the pinnacle of prestige and power.   Any of us should be able to realistically tell any child – black, white, rich, poor, male, female, gay or straight – “one day that could be you!”

Woodie Guthrie and Neil Young have expressed in song a tune not of protest, but of hope and promise.  Far beyond the geography of this nation – calling America “this land” evokes much of what is unique about us.  We began as an expansive but unknown frontier of hope, and that image remains a part of national identity.   America, the land, is by its very nature a quasi spiritual realm – a refuge for all humanity where universal ideals of compassion, fairness, justice, freedom and opportunity might be lived out.  John Winthrop, the founding governor of Plymouth colony, first coined the phrase that this land is like a city on a hill – evoking Jesus’ great image and even greater ethical teachings.  While sincere men and women will disagree on how that image can continue to be realized, a fundamental truth still remains.  All humanity – not just Americans – are called by millennia of spiritual reflection and truth to love others and treat them as they too wish to be treated – the Golden Rule.  If a child is born into the streets outside these windows and cannot hope to escape a cycle of poverty, is that love?  If in this very city children gather in “state of the art” elementary and secondary schools while others, only a few miles away, gather in schools that would make a third world nation embarrassed, is that love?  When access to the corridors of power are restricted only to those with great wealth, is that love?  When millions of citizens live in daily fear that they could be diagnosed with a serious illness but have no health insurance to pay for treatment, is that love?

Our answer to these questions must frame our actions.  Guthrie and Young sing a plea to you and to me.  We must honestly examine our consciences and ask the question – is this land – this land that embodies dreams of opportunity – is it your land, my land, and the land of each and every citizen?

I wish you peace, joy and a Happy Fourth of July week…