Saturday, February 24, 2007

Guthrie's subversive verses

Yesterday afternoon, a colleague and I were walking across campus. As we got close to our old building--we moved into a new one last December--he suggested we walk in and see our old digs. There was a sign on the door that said "No Admittance" while the building was undergoing renovations. I mentioned Woody Guthrie's comment about such signs, and he didn't know what I was talking about. So I told him.

Guthrie, the folk singer known for his songs about Okies and others who were down on their luck in the 1930s, grew tired of hearing Kate Smith's ubiquitous version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," and so he wrote a response: the song we now call "The Land Is Your Land," except he originally ended each verse with "God Blessed America for Me."

Nowadays, the song is one of our great patriotic standards, but it wasn't always so, at least not in the same sense. After three verses about America's grandeur (“from California, to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters," etc.), Guthrie had this:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
A sign was posted, said "Private Property,"
But on the back side, it didn't say nothing.
God blessed America for me.
(Sometimes he sang, "That side was made for you and me.")

And then there's the sixth verse:

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering
If God blessed America for me?

My friend said, "Ahh, the subversive verses!" I told him I was going to have to use that. And now I have.

By the way, we didn't go into the building.