January 22, 2016

This land is your land

FILE - This undated file photo shows folk singer Woody Guthrie playing his guitar and singing. Guthrie's writings, recordings and artwork will land in his native state after an Oklahoma foundation bought the collection, with plans for a display that concentrates on his artistry rather than the populist politics that divided local opinion over the years. Guthrie, known for the anthem, "This Land is Your Land" and his songs about the poor and downtrodden, is remembered mostly as a musician, composer and singer, but was also a literary figure and an artist, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.   (AP Photo/File)

Woody Guthrie (undated)

Early in the US depression (1929-1939) Guthrie abandoned his family and joined the migration of Oklahoma farmers (Okies) off the land they had impoverished (made into a Dust Bowl) and on to California looking for work, any work. He learned their blues and other songs creating a strong foundation for his own song writing. But it was not until February 1940, while the US was sitting on the sidelines of World War II, that he penned what may be his most well known song: This land is your land.  You have probably joined in singing the first two verses at least once in your life. Just in case they have slipped your memory here they are. These verses have been covered by numerous performers since the 1960s: most recently in a full-length performance at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 by Pete Seeger and others.

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

Commentaries make it very clear that this is a song for the disposed (settlers) of USA. They, like Woody, had experienced unemployment, loss of homes, as in the financial collapse of 2008-9, families were broken up as men chased paying work wherever it was rumoured to be. For the only time in US history significant numbers emigrated. For those who remained, US ‘poor relief’ and soup kitchens, met bodily needs while  adding to their sense that were existing in a land where they no longer belonged. The song is for them. That said, when the song is sung by people whose belonging to the land is unquestioned, it celebrates a takeover in which the Indigenous peoples of the land are erased. Native Americans appear nowhere in the many verses. And it carries the same message when sung here. For New Zealand the first verse, that doubles as the chorus, became:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From Coromandel to the Chatham Islands,
From the kauri forests to the Southern waters,
This land was made for you and me.

None of the next three verses were changed from Woody’s original. So it still pushes the Indigenous people, Maori this time, out of sight, as if they had never been tangata whenua. I don’t think Woody Guthrie meant it that, he was entirely focused on those, (settlers) like himself, who had been exploited and effectively dispossessed. And the song works brilliantly for them and others who weren’t put through the wringer that way. Like many other singers, when I am bellowing out the words in a friendly singalong, I hear myself affirming that this is where I belong. Yet that intent does not alter the message of the song – this land, whether Great Turtle Island or Aotearoa, is the property of the settlers and their descendants. So the song and the singing help mask the enormity of the colonial takeover. Just one more affirmation of New Zealand’s settler society; its institutions, its practices, and its very Western values as being how it is and how it should be.

Raymond Nairn

Leave a Reply