This Song is Your Song

There is a little cartoon on that makes fun of both John Kerry and George Bush. It’s pretty funny, really, with it’s pythonesque images, and clever lyrics.

There is a poignant image of an native American standing in front of a beautiful western sunset saying “this land was my land” as the space behind him fills with Burger Kings and Walmarts. Yes, it’s a cliché. But sometimes, something becomes a cliché because it’s true. Because the scandal of relentlessly ugly and tacky American streets and malls has never gone away.

The tune is “This Land” by Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie, it turns out, didn’t record it until after 1956. A Canadian group, the Travelers, recorded their own version with Canadian lyrics in 1955 and had a huge hit with it. They were invited to write Canadian lyrics for it by Pete Seeger who was in Toronto at the time, because the song had become black-listed in the U.S.

There is a missing line or two.

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
God blessed America for me.

Maybe you never heard those lines before. It’s possible because those lines are usually omitted especially when we teach this charming little song to school children. Guthrie himself sung variations of the “God blessed America for me.” Apparently Guthrie wrote the wrong as a response to “God Bless America” which he hated. Here’s another verse you don’t hear very often:

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.

Absurdly, the owners of the copyright are suing for using their song in this little cartoon. My jaw dropped when I heard this. For one thing, Woody Guthrie believe in folk music, and there’s something unnatural about a copyright on a folk song.

Woody Guthrie on Copyright (1933):

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

For another thing, I think Guthrie would have approved of the jibjab parody. If there was one thing he liked to ridicule, it was a dishonest politician.