I grew up in a family of 11 children in the days before SUVs. So we took our road trips in two-car caravans led by a steamy station wagon with crank-handle windows and hot vinyl upholstery. That wagon was always packed with obstreperous kids singing obnoxious songs. But one song we were emphatically discouraged from singing has now emerged as a theme song for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. My father loved popular music and never ceased being interested in it. In the 1960s, he happily escorted my older sisters to see the Beatles. A decade later, he bought me tickets for the Grateful Dead. But if we started singing one particular song when he was at the wheel, he nearly drove off the road. “That song,” he would say, “has a Socialist message.” The song was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” John Kerry has been singing this tune lately on his own road trips, and it will be no surprise if someone sings it at next week’s Democratic convention. “Recently,” the New York Times reported last month, “Kerry has been strumming his guitar on the campaign plane and rehearsing, ‘This Land is Your Land,’ as if to underline at some future event that his campaign is a protest against a presidency that has created a land where the rich get the breaks and the rest get squeezed.” Sure enough, at a recent fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall, the candidate strapped on a guitar and joined wealthy entertainers in a sing-along of the tune. He also sang it at a Wisconsin rally. I researched the song my father described. Guthrie wrote the song, I learned, as a rebuttal to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The liner notes to the CD Woody Guthrie–This Land is Your Land (produced by the Smithsonian Institution) say: “Woody’s stated reason for writing it is possibly open to criticism–he said he was tired of hearing Kate Smith, one of the nation’s most popular singers during the 1930s, sing ‘God Bless America.’ So he voiced a different perspective on the United States, ending each verse with ‘God blessed America for me.'” Guthrie’s “different perspective” was indeed Socialist. Two verses of his original lyrics were: “Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/A sign was painted said: Private Property./But on the back side it didn’t say nothing–/God blessed America for me.” “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple/By the Relief Office I saw my people–/As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if/God blessed America for me.” Guthrie’s first public recording of the song, released in 1951, dropped these verses. The sarcastic hook of “God blessed America for me” was changed to “This land was made for you and me.” But the Smithsonian CD includes a rendition with Guthrie singing the lines attacking “private property,” and the liner notes say “the ‘Private Property’ verse became a part of [Woody’s son] Arlo Guthrie’s and Pete Seeger’s renditions of the song.” Guthrie wrote columns for Peoples Daily World, a Communist Party newspaper, but was never a member of the Communist Party. “Guthrie instead served as what the party called a ‘fellow traveler,’ a nonmember who generally agreed with the Communist Party platform but was not subject to party discipline,” writes Ed Cray in his 2004 biography Ramblin’ Man–The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. In 1945, Guthrie scribbled on the flyleaf of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital: “The man that writes our best ballad will read this book from cover to cover . . . I’d like to try and write all of these things down in short words.” “While he was less disciplined than members of the party,” writes Cray, “he nonetheless followed the party line, even to the extent of endorsing Communist North Korea’s invasion of autocratic South Korea.” My father did not back the Communists in Korea. He fought them as a battalion aide surgeon in the 7th Infantry Division. But my father’s roots roughly resemble Guthrie’s. Both came of age in the Midwest dust bowl, in the Great Depression, in families that knew real want. Both went West. Both pursued their dreams to professional success–Guthrie as a folksinger, my father as a doctor. My father, however, always attributed his success to American freedom, to the system of private enterprise and private property that Guthrie scorned in songs that futilely preached class war to the Greatest Generation. If John Kerry, a son of privilege, poses as a tax-the-rich populist next week, then starts singing, “This Land is Your Land,” I suspect my father will be smiling down on him and thinking: He couldn’t have picked a more fitting song.
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