Welcome to the first installment of Jampaign 2016, wherein I, Mandy Freebairn, will be documenting music news as it pertains to the 2016 presidential race. Why? First and foremost, because it’s fun. But more importantly, we seem to be at a strange cultural moment where we are more inclined to listen to the celebrities we like than to the politicians we’ve elected, and who can blame us when it seems like any rich idiot with a megaphone has a more-than-decent chance at a nomination? The way politicians and popular artists (in this case, musicians) are interacting during this presidential race leaves much room to be explored, and I’d like to be the one to do it.
Over the years, music has both shaped and been shaped by public opinion. It’s been a vehicle for national pride (“America the Beautiful”) and a weapon of anti-war outcry (“Give Peace a Chance”). The relationship between music and politics has been a magnificently interdependent one, each having influenced the other greatly throughout history. And so today, we’re taking a look at how an American classic—Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”—might not be as patriotic as you think, and what that means for its use in presidential campaigns.
At the end of January, Vampire Weekend (along with Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors) performed at a Students for Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa. After playing some Vampire Weekend classics for an eager crowd, frontman, Ezra Koenig, led the band into “This Land is Your Land,” with Bernie joining in towards the end. This performance, aside from being the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen, is doubly significant. It was, of course, a homage to Bernie’s own rendition, recorded for his 1987 album, We Shall Overcome. It was also, however, a powerful statement about Bernie’s politics. To explain, let’s look at the history of “This Land is Your Land.”
Surprisingly enough, “This Land is Your Land” was not intended as the nationalistic ideal it has come to embody. Guthrie actually wrote the song as a response to “God Bless America,” a patriotic song by Irving Berlin. The original lyrics to “This Land is Your Land,” some of which have since been cut out of the song, tell a critical story of America, and express Guthrie’s left-leaning politics. Take the fourth verse, which remains in the song today:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, said “private property”
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me
This verse is quite political, hinting at a call for decommodification and wealth redistribution. Guthrie rejects privatization, insisting instead that all Americans are equally entitled to “this land.” The song’s political message gets even stronger when paired with its original ending, a verse that was omitted in most versions of the song after 1945:
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?
In the original ending, Guthrie questions whether America can truly call itself a free land despite the abject poverty of many of its citizens. Sound familiar? Over 70 years later, his voice echoes through Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches. So, perhaps the true meaning of the song makes it less American. Or instead, maybe welfare policies might be more American than some us are willing to admit.
Mandy Freebairn is a staff columnist for the Highlighter.