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"You know, Woody was a Communist," says Woody Guthrie's longtime friend Pete Seeger (Joel Klein, Woody Guthrie, xiv). There you have it. Woody Guthrie, that starry-eyed guy who trekked around the country with a guitar over his shoulder singing folk songs until the cows came home, the archetype of the hobo, the voice of the people during the Great Depression, the guy that put a sticker on his guitar that said "This Machine Kills Fascists," possibly the first punk rocker and definitely the first full-fledged folk music hero, was a Communist. No two ways about it, folks.
There would be no particular problem with facing that fact, if it weren't for "This Land Is Your Land." Didn't they consider making this song into the national anthem at one point? (Well, kind of—some folk revivalists suggested it, and the idea stuck around long enough to get its own Facebook group, but considering that we're a nation of about 300 million, they might need to up their numbers a bit. But we digress…) Isn't this one of those classic all-American songs, like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."? (Yes—but look no further than a nearby Shmoop page to find out that "Born in the U.S.A." might also be a bit less traditionally patriotic than a lot of people think).
Anyhow, the point is that it seems a bit strange to have a Communist American folk hero. Although there have been Communist Party organizers in the U.S. since 1919, the country has not traditionally taken a lot of pride in its Communist elements. In fact, the U.S. spent the better part of the last century fighting Communism, abroad and at home. Even the more benign worldview known as socialism—also a big hit in the period between the two World Wars—is often presented as an outsider ideal that threatens U.S. capitalism (look no further than the 2008 presidential elections for examples of that issue). But "This Land Is Your Land" seems to envision a semi-socialist version of this very country. In Woody Guthrie's America, the land is held communally and the people come together in work and song. This land belongs to you and me. Literally. How did this radical anthem ever become such an accepted part of the mainstream?
To answer that question, we have to look back at Guthrie's personal history, but more importantly, at his political context. Guthrie was born in 1912 in rural Oklahoma, the grandchild of migrants who had been offered land parcels by the U.S. government at the end of the 19th century. They lived real Wild West lives, complete with gun fights, fist fights, and family connections to real live outlaws. They were also participants in the wholesale racism that often went hand-in-hand with Western expansion: there is a record of Guthrie's own father participating in a lynching, and his father also actively participated in blocking a whole nearby town of black residents from voting in an election (Guthrie was a Democrat; at the time, blacks generally voted Republican).
But by the time Guthrie was coming of age, he and his family were also the victims of a growing economic recession, the one that turned into the great 1929 stock market crash and plunged the country into the Great Depression. His dad had given up politics and made a partial career out of acquiring real estate, but ended up in the red over and over again after several botched deals led him into bankruptcy. "I'm the only man who ever lost a farm a day for thirty days," his Dad used to say. "Nobody ever lost fifty thousand dollars quicker than me" (Klein 26).
Woody Guthrie, an unusually bright and zany child, developed a very different political outlook from his family's frontier conservatism. For example, from the earliest days of his own adulthood, he was never interested in enterprise: "Money bothered Woody: getting it turned people into animals and losing it drove them crazy. He refused to acknowledge its existence in quantities beyond what he needed for immediate use, and squandered his windfalls," wrote biographer Joe Klein (37). Instead of launching businesses or buying up real estate as his father had done, Woody avoided owning much of anything at all. He drew cartoons, sang songs, and painted signs for cash here and there, stringing along odd jobs to get by. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he also skipped town on the regular, seeking adventure further and further to the west.
For some reason, even though he had a wife, kids, a home and enough money to live on, Guthrie wanted to be out among the people: "He spent nights in jail on vagrancy charges when he was happy for the roof over his head; he spent nights in skid row flophouses that reeked of vomit and crawled with bedbugs; he spent nights out in the desert, freezing; he spent nights in the boxcars (…) he learned to sleep on floors in corners, on sidewalks, in alleys, anywhere" (Klein 79).
It was during these wanderings that Guthrie started to develop a new political outlook. He went out to California for the first time in the mid-1930s, expecting to see a land of milk and honey. Hundreds of thousands of poor people from the frontier lands had rushed out there to seek jobs, most notably the poor migrant farmers who came to be known as Okies. Guthrie was completely bowled over by what he saw: children starved to death next to lush farms filled with food. Government checkpoints pointed guns in the faces of his people from back home, humiliating them for being poor. Big businesses went out of their way to crush worker resistance and keep the wages low. Guthrie fell in love with the landscape, but felt completely disillusioned with the politics.
It was there in California that Guthrie first encountered the songs and ideas of the Wobblies, the radical labor union that had sought to organize workers under the vision of an eventual overthrow of capitalism. Although the Wobblies' heyday had already come and gone, there were still radical union organizers running around California, teaching people about their radical doctrines. An important element of most of these doctrines was a belief that the nation's land should be the communitarian possession of all the people—in other words, "this land belongs to you and me."
Woody began writing columns for the West Coast Communist Party newspaper, The People's World, in Los Angeles in 1938. He also played gigs for workers in the migrant camps, singing songs about Communism and socialism. When he transferred his life to New York in 1940, he immersed himself in the radical left wing there.
At that time, Communism was more than just a buzzword in New York. The Communist Party was a powerful presence in certain places—namely in a liberal intellectual left wing, and in certain working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. The Communist Party was no small organization, either: they put out pamphlets and organized unions, but they also ran operations ranging from schools and summer camps to housing projects, community centers, and even healthcare services (Klein 157).
Guthrie's songs increasingly focused on the struggles of working people and the suffering he had seen roaming across the United States during the Great Depression. His down-home image combined with his leftist politics fit perfectly into the New York scene. The Communist Party on the East Coast was seeking a sort of all-American image for Communism, and Woody Guthrie fit the bill perfectly, according to Ed Cray, portrayed in the documentary This Machine Kills Fascists. He was a real country boy who just happened to think that land should be shared among the people—but he also loved his country, and American identity came through in his songs even more than any political identity.
Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, stresses that her father did not get his anti-capitalist politics from any political party: "I think Woody learned socialism on the highways of America," she says in the documentary This Machine Kills Fascists. "Socialism is when you're sitting on a stoop and you've been kicked out of your home for unjust reasons and you don't have a place to live and someone comes by and says, you can share my flat with me. That's Woody's idea of socialism."
When Guthrie scribbled down the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land" in 1940, there was no fanfare. He didn't even have a tune for the song, and he mostly wrote it because he was so irritated with hearing "God Bless America" all the time on the radio. Instead of the line we now know so well, This land was made for you and me, at the end of each verse, the verses ended with the line God blessed America for me (he changed the song when he first recorded it in 1944). It was a response to what Guthrie saw as brainless patriotism, meant to question whether America was really treating its people as equitably as he believed it should. The song was not even released until the 1950s.
The fifties might strike you as a strange time to release a Communist national anthem. Now that the country had finally recovered from the Depression, the politics of the Cold War were gathering steam. There was a move towards a new era of conservatism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and anticommunist paranoia became a key force in American life. Congress itself started going after celebrity performers seen as Communist sympathizers. And what more obvious Communist sympathizers were there than Guthrie and his friends, people like Pete Seeger and the Weavers (who were actually blacklisted and forced to "take a break" from music in the 1950s)?
In a lot of ways, though, the 1950s were no different from any other decade in American history: there was never a consensus of any kind about all these political debates. Sure, economic recovery had finally swept in to save many people, but millions of others never got a taste of the new suburban American Dream. Civil Rights activism was finally gaining traction in the mainstream, but it was also met with forceful and often violent opposition. New forms of mass media promoted conformity and capitalism, but new artistic movements like Beat poetry and rock and roll resisted cultural authority from all kinds of creative angles. And while the Red Scare and Joseph McCarthy made anticommunist sentiment into a big news story, the folk revival was busy making Woody Guthrie into a full-fledged hero for many fans. All it took was the dawn of the 1960s for Woody Guthrie to become a household name and "This Land Is Your Land" to become a common song that kids learned at school (although they usually weren't taught the last couple verses).
And so it came to pass that the lyrics "This land belongs to you and me" passed innocently over the lips of probably hundreds of thousands of Americans, both youths and adults. But the question remains: is the song fundamentally American, or anti-American? Should we interpret it as socialist, Communist, or some other kind of uniquely American utopianism? Is Woody Guthrie's folk anthem a pipe dream for hippies, or a key to understanding a strain of American radicalism that defines our history as a people?
One scholar summed up the importance of that question nicely: "America has a fabled radical tradition, but its anti-radical tradition runs at least as deep, and conflict has persisted." In other words, both radicalism and anti-radicalism have an important place in U.S. history. And an important part of "our history as a people" is the constant push and pull in the United States over who—and what—actually counts as "American." It's pretty obvious today that what counts as pro-American to some looks like unhinged radicalism to others, and vice versa.
Even "This Land Is Your Land," now more than sixty years old, still gets mixed up in that contentious conversation. In 2010 alone, Glenn Beck ranted about the tune's anti-American bias while Alec Baldwin promoted it as a philosophical response to the BP oil spill. In an even spicier mix-up over political beliefs, an anti-gay marriage organization called the National Organization for Marriage trekked cross-country during the summer of 2010 playing the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the song at their rallies—until Peter and Paul themselves (the folk singers, not the apostles) issued a harsh cease and desist notice, noting that the organization's views are "directly contrary to the advocacy position Peter, Paul and Mary have held for decades" and threatening legal action if the group didn't stop playing the song. They said, in other words, this land may belong to you and me, but this song sure as heck doesn't.
Whether it is claimed by conservative activists, aging hippies, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, "This Land Is Your Land" persists as a basic part of American folk tradition. The paradox of that fact is probably the most American thing about the song.