This song is your song


Memo to the media commentary class: Can we stop it already with the references to “Kumbaya”?
You’ve heard it, surely. It comes from politicians, pundits, editorialists, headline writers and other various gasbags – and I say that as a proud member of the American Gasbags Union.
A simple campfire song most people probably first encountered at vacation bible camp has become a vicious kind of shorthand for dangerous, empty-headed bipartisanship.
Yes, we need a word for the naïve belief that we can somehow hug our problems away. And, no, I don’t carry any particular fondness for the song, which, in my view, is kind of goopy and unconvincing. But clichés need to be killed in the crib before they grow into monsters, right?
Besides, the term is almost always used by confrontational militants to disparage any kind of détente or reconciliation. And it’s almost always used by the right against the left.
It’s an effective weapon, too. “Kumbaya” conjures up blissed-out trust-fund hippies dancing around barefoot sticking flowers in each other’s hair.
But, I’ve been to a ton of Santa Cruz-style granola-crunching hootenannys in my day and, never once have I ever heard anyone sing “Kumbaya” with a straight face. Doesn’t happen.
Want to zero in on the real lefty national anthem?
It’s called “This Land is Your Land.”
OK, no huge revelation there. As a song, it’s almost as well-known as “Kumbaya,” but it’s also an anthem that has largely avoided the ravages of the Ironic Age, and, from what I’ve heard in recent months, it’s still pretty popular. Maybe it’s even enjoying some kind of below-the-radar resurgence.
I remember hearing the song on the Washington Mall on the morning of the Obama Inauguration (Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, of course, had sung it the day before at the Lincoln Memorial). When I heard it, it was coming from a group of apple-faced young people in matching red-and-blue knit caps, clapping in mittens (which kind of defeats the purpose of clapping). I must admit that hearing it raised goosebumps, though because of the single-digit wind chill that day, I can’t be clear on the exact cause and effect.
Since then, I’ve heard “Land” trickle out in various contexts, and I’ve been somewhat surprised at how often it surfaces, if you’re listening for it.
Where “Kumbaya” is essentially a prayer without a lot of social meaning, “This Land is Your Land,” written, of course, by the immortal Woody Guthrie, has plenty of meat on its bones thematically. Its famous repeating chorus, touching on the magnificent coast-to-coast geography of the good ole U.S. of A., underlines perhaps the primary left/liberal social value – democratic equality: This land is your land/This is land is my land. That chorus is just innocent enough that it’s been institutionalized in schools, camps and other contexts that involve children for decades. I learned it in the first grade back in the Nixon years.
But the subversive thing about “This Land” is how it grows more and more political as it goes along. The first verses carry an almost John Muir-like spiritual quality, the author grooving on the transcendent beauty of the landscape (Good thing Woody’s not wandering around the American interior today). The “endless skyway,” the “golden valley,” the “diamond deserts” – it’s a stunningly romantic vision of a country, not as a political entity, but as a ravishing landscape.
Of course, killjoys might argue, only free-loading knockabouts who are not contributing to the economy with their labor have the time to rhapsodize about the country’s terrain. Still, this notion of America as a beautiful virgin bride is deeply embedded into our cultural heritage. It’s hard to combat.
Then, the song ties the love of the land into something that dances daringly close to socialism in a verse that mentions a No-Tresspassing sign. On the back side of the sign, sings Woody, is nothing. And that side is made for you and me. How can you enjoy the wonders of this blessed land if it’s carved up by barbed-wire fencing?
But the thing about folk songs (and even “The Star-Spangled Banner” qualifies in this regard), no one ever gets to the fourth, fifth or sixth verse. That’s where you can hide the interesting stuff. The fifth verse of “This Land” is the one that’s beginning to resonate today as it reaches back to the last great economic collapse, and the questions of political inequality it raised. The verse reads:
“In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple/
Near the relief office – I see my people/
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’/
If this land’s still made for you and me.”
Hmmm. The fifth verse of “Kumbaya”?: “Someone’s sleeping, Lord, Kumbaya …”
That about says it, huh?


One thought on “This song is your song

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