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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

July 24, 2019: American Anthems: “This Land is Your Land”

[On July 22, 1893, Wellesley Professor Katharine Lee Bates first composed the words to what would become “America the Beautiful.” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “America” and other national songs, leading up to a special weekend post on 21C nominees for new anthems!]
On my folk music nominee for a new national anthem.

This is perhaps not a particularly bold position, but I have to say (as my first two posts in this week’s series have already indicated) that both our official and one of our unofficial but most prominent national anthems—“The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” respectively, are pretty terrible. I’m not assessing their musical qualities, both because that’s well outside of any areas of expertise of mine and because I don’t think that’s especially important when it comes to national anthems. I’m not even (shockingly, for me) analyzing their lyrics too specifically; certainly both are full of bombastic and hyperbolic moments, to say nothing of the deeply bizarre descriptions in “Beautiful” (“purple mountain majesties”? “the fruited plain”?), but that’s par for the course when it comes to anthems. No, when I say that these songs are pretty terrible, I mean as expressions of national identity.

I understand the ways in which a flag can come to stand in for a nation, although (as I wrote in this post on the Pledge of Allegiance) I think that such symbolism shouldn’t necessarily become too blindly accepted or passed down. But “Banner” focuses so fully on the flag that it has room for only the briefest and most generalizing kinds of engagement with the nation and community for which it’s supposed to stand—“the land of the free and the home of the brave” is a nice but pretty vacant sentiment, not least because I have to imagine that the British soldiers trying to take down that flag over Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812 were probably just as brave as their American counterparts (and of course neither nation had yet abolished slavery at this time, so the competition for the land of the free was likewise tight). And while I agree with the main sentiment behind “Beautiful,” that there are lots of impressive natural landscapes under our spacious skies, the balance of its lines falls far too fully toward those fruited plans and not nearly enough toward the people who populate them. Again, such problems are in many ways inevitable when it comes to national anthems, but as Americans we do have an alternative, a national song that parallels many of these elements but defines our core identity much more satisfactorily: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (1944).

The main and most frequently reprinted verses of Guthrie’s song, which he wrote in direct response to “God Bless America,” do focus largely on the nation’s natural landscapes and beauties, but unlike “Beautiful” Guthrie grounds that admiration very explicitly and powerfully in Americans’ experiences and perspectives, on two key levels: the speaker’s own vision of the nation as he traveled throughout it, “roamed and rambled and followed [his] footsteps”; and the song’s titular and most repeated sentiments, that all of that beauty is ours and yours, that it “belongs to you and me.” Within that context, the “voice” that sounds and chants those repeated lines, while just as spiritual as “God Bless America” and as overtly symbolic as the flag, speaks directly and concretely to these living, breathing, wandering Americans, to the speaker and to his traveling companion (you). Even in that most reprinted version of the song, then—the one that ends with the “California to the New York Island” verse—America becomes not only beautiful and symbolic but also human and communal, in the best senses.  But then there are the additional verses, which extend and deepen that human element: the earliest known recording of the song, a 1944 version held at the Smithsonian, includes a verse in which the speaker steps around a sign that reads “private property” to realize that “on the back side it didn’t say nothing”; and Guthrie’s original manuscript for the song included two more verses, one which begins “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway” and the other where the speaker has “seen [his] people” standing “there hungry … by the relief office.” All three of these verses remind us of the stakes of a truly communal vision of American identity, make clear that such a vision—and an anthem that expresses it—require the fullest and bravest meanings of freedom and democracy.
I know that the likelihood of 35,000 people standing in unison at Fenway Park and singing about condoning trespassing and witnessing lines at the relief office is not great. And I’m not unreasonable, I’d be more than happy with the rest of Guthrie’s song as the national anthem; it does everything that we expect of an anthem while better capturing the genuinely communal and shared experience of America that we should demand of one. Who’s up for a national campaign? After all, this song was made for you and me. Next anthemic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other national songs you’d highlight?

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