When I was in fourth grade, our teachers allowed us to choose the patriotic song for the class to sing after the pledge of allegiance. It must have been in the fourth grade playbook—all three of my teachers, in two radically different states, did the same thing. Few kids chose the “Star Spangled Banner”—too difficult to sing—and most chose “America the Beautiful”, favoring amber waves of grain over exploding gunfire. I, however, always wanted “This land is Your Land”, an early sign of working class radicalism.
It was, really, the lyrics. My family had just driven from New Hampshire to California, to Florida, then home again. I had seen the Gulf Stream waters and the Pacific Redwoods, the ribbon of highway stretching out in front of me. I felt, on a deep level, connected to the landscape Guthrie was describing. It WAS my land, all of it. I had roamed and rambled over it all, talked to people in campgrounds and rest areas, explored the woods and rivers. I could name all fifty states on the truckstop placemats without help. We did it for fun in the camper at night. Of course, in elementary school, they only sang the first two verses, on a good day, preferring to focus on landscape and not politics.
Years later, I heard Pete Seager sing the “lost” verses and was astounded by the new depth they brought to the cheery fourth grade song. First, Guthrie saw his people in relief offices and waiting in soup lines, the poverty that was—and is—endemic to our country. Times were tough in the 1930s when he was traveling the country, picking up money by rewriting songs about the Columbia River for the electric company. Grapes of Wrath tough. But, are they better now? I don’t think so.
And then, the laugh out loud last verse, where he talks about seeing the “no trespassing” sign, walks around it, and decided that “that side was made for you and me.” As someone who has always wandered into areas where I am not “supposed” to be, that line resonated. I can see why it was left out of the songbooks. Finally, the song swings into one more grand chorus, celebrating the landscape one more time. This land belongs to you and me.
I think about this song once more as we drive across the country, hoping to find that we all have more in common that in opposition. This is an amazing land, from the gulf coast waters to the redwood forests; we need to celebrate it, not tear it apart.