“This Land:” The pro-Immigrant Radicalism of Lady Gaga and Guthrie at Half-Time

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

By beginning with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and then switching to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land,” Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta, 30) engaged in a subtle but very radical critique of the immigration and other policies of Donald J. Trump. Her switch at the end to quoting the pledge of allegiance with the ending phrase “with justice and liberty for all” was a further critique of Trump’s latent white nationalism. For all.

Ms. Germanotta knew that Guthrie, an American leftist and radical, had written “This Land is your Land” as a satire on Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he considered insufficiently alarmed, and narrowly nationalistic. He first wrote the lyrics in February, 1940, before he took an epic train ride across the country to New York. Ronald Briley, in his article “Woody Sez”: Woody Guthrie, the “People’s Daily World,” and Indigenous Radicalism,” California History 84.1 (2006): 30-43, shows that Guthrie had a regular column in the West Coast Communist newspaper, The People’s Daily World, in the year leading up to his composition of the lyrics (the tune was lifted from the Carter family).

Guthrie was born and brought up in Oklahoma. His father had been a small town realtor who opposed socialism, but who lost his business in the mid-1920s. Then after his mother developed a severe mental illness that made her a threat to those around her, Guthrie went with his father to Texas, where Guthrie Sr. got a job managing a boarding house.

In 1931-1939 the US Midwest experience one of the worst droughts in American history, devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and especially in Guthrie’s native Oklahoma. This was on top of the Great Depression, caused by a shrunken money supply and the unwillingness of either business or government to invest sufficient money in the economy after the 1929 stock market crash. The Dust Bowl was caused by an unusually cool Pacific Ocean and an unusually warm Atlantic Ocean, which in combination operated to weaken the jet stream and pull it south. Ordinarily it stretches from the west coast of Mexico, where it picks up moisture, up into the Midwest, where the moisture came down as rain. Climate scientists are terrified that one result of our spewing of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year will be to bring back the Dust Bowl and make it a very long term phenomenon.

In 1936 Woody went out to California to see for himself the conditions of the Okies, Oklahama residents forced off their land by the Dust Bowl and turned into penniless refugees on the West Coast. He was shocked at how badly these refugees were treated by the Californians. He was also distressed by the high rents, comparing them to armed robbery.

I want to underline this point. Some of the background of “This Land is your Land” is distress about how refugee residents of California were being treated. I think we know what Guthrie would have thought about the surge of right wing anti-immigrant feeling in today’s America. Ironically, Oklahoma, then a source of Internally Displaced People, is today among the states most hardhearted against refugees. He also had a grudge against banks that had foreclosed on the farmers, in his view greedily and heartlessly, instead of being more patient about eventually being paid.

Guthrie settled in Glendale with the help of relatives, and fell in with members of the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World), and got a job singing on radio. Briley writes,

“Guthrie’s political contributions to the radio program were solicited by KFVD station owner Frank Burke. In fact, Guthrie did some reporting for Burke’s progressive newspaper, The Light. Angered by how the capitalist system abandoned the unemployed living in Hoovervilles along the highways and underneath the bridges of America, Guthrie reported, ‘A drunk don’t like his own vomit. And a dizzy Profit System don’t like its own filth.'”

Guthrie associated with and sang for left-wing crowds, including the Communist Party, though he probably never joined. He was a Midwestern Christian socialist and maintained that the New Testament mandated that all wealth be owned in common. This old time religion, he called “Commonism.”

Briley quotes him as describing Wall Street as where “the workers git worked on an the reapers get reaped an the farmers get plowed under.”

So those are the considerations that were on Woody’s mind when he composed the lyrics for “This Land is your Land.” Moreover, there are lyrics from Guthrie’s original 1944 recording that are no longer heard very often. Pete Seeger (a friend of Guthrie’s) along with his grandson and Bruce Springsteen, sang some of them on the Mall in 2009:

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
The sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back 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?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.”

Of course, the meaning of the Wall has changed in the past year and a half. But that only makes the words more poignant.

Lady Gaga only sang the more well known lyrics, but they are powerful enough. They voice the sentiments of a great American poet of the working class, in the tradition of Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and Walt Whitman.

That this land is your land is nothing new in unequal America where so many aren’t paid a living wage. That this land is my land is the radical statement.

When I am a Syrian refugee founding a company in Michigan, this land is my land.

When I am an Iranian-American scientist working on a cure for diabetes , this land is my land.

When I am a Somali woman and former refugee now elected as a state representative in Minnesota, this land is my land.

When I am a Gay Libyan refugee doing my medical degree all over again to cure Americans, this land is my land.

When I am an Iraqi refugee in Buffalo who did a degree in Social Work to help American families, this land is my land.

When I am a Yemeni refugee mother working in a cafeteria as her two young daughters go to elementary school, this land is my land.

When I am a Sudanese “lost boy” refugee now working as a US diplomat for the State Department, representing America abroad, this land is my land.

Woody Guthrie knew how the Okie refugees were treated in his own day. His song is a biting satire, not a celebration. He knew that as long as the super-rich could act in a predatory manner with impunity, as long as the laws of wages and property were made by pliant politicians in the back pocket of the billionaires, this land isn’t really for you and me.

That is why we must insist all the harder that it should be, and make it so. Not just for those born here but for everyone who is being shown the back of the Wall.


Related videos:


Lady Gaga’s FULL Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show | NFL


Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen – This Land is Your Land”

20 Responses

  1. The scope of your scholarship continues to impress me, but I suppose it comes as no surprise given the scope of your humanity. I am rather certain you know the [far less than six degrees of Kevin Bacon] connections from Woody to Yip Harburg’s “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime” and from there to “Over the Rainbow” — perhaps material for future articles that we can be sure the course of Trumpism will dictate.

  2. Thanks Juan. Great reminder what This Land is ALL about. And the film with Seeger and ALL the happy joyful and smiling faces just says it all. I wish we had him back. He was America. Springsteen as well

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful article. It’s comforting to know there are good people around like you and Lady Gaga.

  4. I wonder how many people listening to Lady Gaga or other renditions of these songs got the message? To be honest, I can barely understand a word she and other singers of her generation “sing” with all the noise and distractions going on at the same time. Perhaps, this is a generational thing. Contemporaries I talk to have similar problems.

    If only Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra could teach the younger generation some lessons.

  5. This sort of brings up a question. Is the right way to fight a regressive “revolution” to counter it with messages that liberalism as we understand it is American and patriotic, therefore “normal”? Is this going to become a battle of rival normalizations? Are we trying to activate the non-voters who we assume to still have some humanistic values, or are we trying to convert Trump’s base who now take their marching orders from a “conservative” who says he’s a Leninist who wants to overthrow the existing bourgeois liberal society?

    I’ve had a feeling for a long time that attempts to out-patriot the Right, to claim that originalism actually supports Jeffersonian liberalism, rest on dangerous assumptions about the essential commitment to fairness of the White masses.

  6. There’s another reason Lady Gaga’s decision to sing one of Woody’s songs has special meaning at this moment. Woody wrote songs that were specifically anti-Trump. They were about Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father and Woody Guthrie’s landlord.
    Here’s a relevant article:
    link to nytimes.com

  7. Importantly: Woody Guthrie was also a critic (& tenant?) of Fred Trump’s (the father), and referred to him in a lyric:

    I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
    He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
    When he drawed that color line
    Here at his Beach Haven family project

    Beach Haven ain’t my home!
    No, I just can’t pay this rent!
    My money’s down the drain,
    And my soul is badly bent!
    Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
    Where no black folks come to roam,
    No, no, Old Man Trump!
    Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

  8. Thank you for this article. I read that the dust bowl was partly caused by the government paying farmers to raise crops on land that could only grow grass. Eventually, crops could no longer be raised on the land and the grass wasn’t there to keep the soil in place.

  9. What an excellent post Professor. Thank you for that. The video link you posted sent me on an over hour long journey watching Arlo and Pete on youtube. It’s been a great night so far.

  10. Lady Gaga is an accomplished vocalist on a par with the greats of the past. When I was a teenager (1960-67) I needed a copy of the Hit Parader magazine to “hear” the lyrics no matter who did the singing. When I was familiar with a song the Lyrics were clear. Familiarity is the main reason we understand the lyrics. Listen to Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga sing “The Lady Is A Tramp.”

  11. Woodie Guthrie was radical. Lady Gaga hardly. Her show was self-promotion, not radical opposition to anything except moral conservatism.

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