Several days ago I was asked to be part of a program next month commemorating the 60th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land Is Your Land.” This got me thinking.
I thought first of the late Jim Dunn. At a conference in Ohio in the mid-’80s, Jim was leading a group of us in song. I asked him if he could lead us in singing This Land Is Your Land. His response was something to this effect (I still remember his words): “Well, I’ve been working with some Native American people in the Southwest recently, and they really don’t like this song, so I’d rather not sing it.”
Every time since then, whenever this song is sung, I’ve thought of Jim and what he said back then.
So when I received a request to be part of this program I started meditating on what I would say if I accepted it.
Here’s what I’ve come to. What I would/will probably do is to begin by singing an additional verse to this song that I hope Guthrie’s descendants, those who knew him, and our pro-justice movement generally, would agree should be added. This is the proposed new verse:
“This land was stolen from the Native Peoples
And they continue to suffer still,
It’s time to right this, it’s time for justice,
United, we can, we must, we will.”
There’s some personal irony to all of this. Five days ago I began a water-only fast in connection with the urgent efforts to free Leonard Peltier. We’re in crunch time right now as this is written. Peltier, innocent of the crime he has been in prison for since 1976, has his best chance of being released through a grant of executive clemency from Clinton before he leaves office. I am sure that my being on this fast, the constant thoughts and/or actions about Peltier and Indigenous People as a result, contributed to my ability to even conceive of writing a proposed new verse to Guthrie’s song.
But there’s more.
The inspiration to write this verse literally came while I was in the shower. As I jumped out, dripping wet, I rushed to find a pen and something to write on so that I didn’t lose the words which were coming through me. I grabbed a manila envelope in the hall outside the bathroom and wrote them down. Then, after drying off and getting dressed, I looked inside the envelope. Inside was a picture of my late brother-in-law, Joe Califf, as a young child wearing a very full “Indian headdress,” with his arms folded, looking very serious, obviously posed to look like an “Indian chief.”
My wife’s, Joe’s parents, were not racists. Indeed, they were long-time progressives going back to the ’30s. Until they died, they were as active as they could be in support of a wide range of pro-justice issues, including issues specific to people of color. And yet, back in the ’40s and ’50s, when this picture, and Guthrie’s song, were taken and written, there seems to have been very little consciousness on the Left about issues of importance to Indigenous People.
So what does all this mean?
I like This Land Is Your Land. I still sing it, even as, every time I do, I think about what Jim Dunn said. Maybe I’ve been wrong to continue singing it, but it’s hard to deal with everything that is racist, or sexist, or heterosexist that we’re exposed to in this society. Besides, I don’t think Guthrie meant in any way to express white chauvinism. My hunch is that, if he were alive today, he would take Jim Dunn’s words seriously and maybe do up a new verse himself, or revise the song.
But he’s not alive, and it’s incumbent on those of us who are to carry on the pro-justice tradition in every way that we can. One of those ways is to “correct,” upgrade, if you will, songs, expressions, cultural patterns, ways of speaking and doing, that are offensive to those long-exploited or oppressed. And we need to do so in consultation with the people in those victimized groups.
I hope to hear from my Native American friends on what they think of all of this.
P.S. We should all be calling the White House comment line every day to express our view that Peltier should be granted executive clemency before Clinton leaves office. Call 202-456-1111, and press “O” to bypass the messages and go directly to an operator. More information can be obtained from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, 785-842-5774, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.freepeltier.org.