While I ran on Friday I listened to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings‘ album “Naturally,” which includes an excellent cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
That song is often sung by schoolchildren and people at pro-government political rallies as a sort of feel-good anthem, akin to a less jingoistic and heart-cloggingly proud “God Bless the USA.”
Jones’ adaptation includes the original lyrics, which I first noticed when I heard Drivin’ ‘n Cryin’ cover it live in 2006. These two verses are conveniently omitted from the feel-good versions:
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 squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
As I listened to her deliciously soulful Motown revival voice, for some reason my mind drifted to when I participated in the Alabama Beta Club Convention during the 10th and 11th grades. The first time I nearly lost my mind at the jaw-dropping displays of overt religious evangelism and group performances by different high school delegations, which included giant PowerPoint backdrops of hyper-patriotic images accompanying shamefully gimmicky musical performances. These acts filled out the top three which won the judges’ smug approval to represent Alabama in the national convention. Meanwhile Gadsden High School’s all-percussion ensemble, which performed live a piece written by one of the ensemble’s student members, got no such nod. I guess talent is not number one in this talent show. This experience led the band I was a part of, Red Clay, to write our massive hit single “Teabag” which we performed at the next year’s convention (we didn’t make the top three because we didn’t have “coordinating outfits.”)
I imagined going back and doing a production based on the original, socially-conscious lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” to first draw in the chaperone-esque judges and the half-bored, half-overeager crowd of students there in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Auditorium and then hit them with cognitive dissonance.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
Here would be a PowerPoint backdrop shifting to display the pristine images considered in the verse. A group of students, half well-dressed and half dressed in an array of non-white collar styles, would begin to shuffle onto the stage doing a funky walk to the beat of the song. The judges smile.
As I went walking down that ribbon of highway
I saw before me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
The people on stage continue some appropriately coordinated funky dance, which would hopefully pass muster of the competent funk authorities. Their interactions are positive, and the images on the screen behind them show hearty social interactions between people all across the USA, of all colors and creeds and class and the like.
As I was walking, now they tried to stop me
They put up a sign that said “PRIVATE PROPERTY”
Well, on the backside you know it said nothing
So it must be: that side was made for you and me
The PowerPoint begins to show pictures of class division. Images from the civil rights movement and the Jim Crow era, Tea Party protesters spitting on black Congressmen, police brutality against homeless people gathered near a shining shopping mall. The well-dressed students on stage put up a “PRIVATE PROPERTY” sign and stand behind it, their arms crossed and looking distrustfully at the other group of students who appear disappointed and frustrated. As the song mentions “the backside” which says nothing, some of the more roughly-dressed students point to it, and they all shuffle onto that side and look back angrily at the well-dressed students. During the instrumental break, some funky movement of the feet and body is still going on, while the scene changes to fit the next verse.
One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple
Down by the welfare office, I saw my people
They stood hungry, I stood wondering
If this land was made for you and me?
A church steeple appears in the background and on the other side of the stage, a welfare office. The poor students are shuffling down-heartedly to the beat outside the welfare office, while the well-dressed students march past them in their Sunday best, most of them clearly doing their best to not meet eyes with those for whom this land was not made. The PowerPoint slides artfully incorporate vivid imagery with graphs and figures about economic disparity and social immobility.
This land is your land…
As Sharon Jones sings the names of different cities in the US, the PowerPoint slides show a succession of images of the downtrodden organizing and resisting unfairness. Union meetings, nonviolent marches, huge protests, riot police. The downtrodden students are encroaching on the territory of the well-of students. It ends with funky anger.
The Gadsden High School Beta Club teacher advisor laughs. The judges do not.