Woody Guthrie, Chimney Sweeps, and Taxation

I’m not requiring Woody and Pete to wear masks because they’re dead

When Jennifer Lopez hit the first note of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” during the Inauguration,  I wondered if she would include those two stanzas my elementary school music teacher omitted when we sang it in the early 60s. It was during the folk revival, and for some odd reason Guthrie’s song had acquired a sort of Kumbaya campfire wholesomeness.[1]

J-Lo did leave out the stanzas, but then again “This Land” had been fused into a medley with “America the Beautiful,” and the negative omitted lyrics don’t mesh well with the latter song, essentially a paean celebrating America’s beauty and God’s bestowal of grace.

Here are the oft-omitted stanzas of Guthrie’s song.

In the fifth stanza, the wayfaring narrator –  presumably Guthrie himself – encounters

[. . .]  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.
This land was made for you and me.[2]

In addition, this verse didn’t make the cut:

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.
This land was made for you and me.

The latter stanza brings to mind stanza from William Blake’s “London”:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls, 

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.[3]

(Allow me here a quick aside: note the difference between song lyrics and poetry, how the former lacks the evocative rhythm and the compression of the latter. So, no Bennington, you may not bring song lyrics instead of poem. With song lyrics all you’ll talk about meaning when I want you to demonstrate how rhythm, rhyme, imagery, symbolism, diction, etc. underscore the meaning).

Guthrie and Blake both, two centuries apart, complain about disparities of wealth and point out religion’s failure to redress wrongs.

And let’s face it.  Wealth in the US is not evenly distributed, and the disparity between rich and poor is widening.

For example, the wealthiest 1% possess ~ 40% of the nation’s wealth, the bottom 80% own ~ 7%.

I’m too lazy to perform computations to determine how much money Jeff Bezos rakes in a week compared to the total income I earned in 34 years of teaching nor the even deeper disparity between Jeff’s income and a minimum wage employee’s.

On the other hand, no one forced me to major in English or to drop out of graduate school. My meager gifts and temperament don’t calculate into untold riches. I don’t begrudge Bezos’s success. He is highly intelligent, hardworking, and ruthless when it comes to business – advantageous qualities for one seeking to amass billions. 

What gripes me (and should the rest of us 99%ers, even Confederate flag-waving militiamen) is that billionaires like Donald Trump can get away with paying $750 in income taxes in a given year. Don’t we have evidence enough that massive tax cuts for the super wealthy don’t result in a trickling down of their wealth but instead create massive budget deficits, deficits that Republicans don’t care about until the second they’re out of power?

Well, it’s a new day and all that jazz. The times, they may be a changing. However, given the narrow margins of Democratic control of Congress and the on-going gerrymandering of districts by Republican dominated state legislatures, I wouldn’t bet even one of my vintage folk LPs on any significant changes transpiring.

Speaking of capitalism, that fake painting produced by the author is for sale

But then again, if Trump breaks away from the GOP and starts a third party that recruits crazies like Laura Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene to run for House and Senate seats against establishment Republicans and Democrats, that could result in a more European-like US economy.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

I’ll leave you with this Guthrie ditty:

This song was written in New York City
Of rich men, preachers and slaves
Yes, if Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galillee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.

Hear that, Franklin Graham?

[1] Driving my stepdaughter to school this morning with Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” playing, I mentioned that it was a highly misunderstood song because people mistook the oft repeated line “Born in the USA” as jingoistic crowing rather than an indictment of the narrator’s mistreatment as a war veteran even though he had, not only been born in the US, but also fought for the US. 

“It doesn’t sound very positive to me,” she said. 

[2] Native Americans have taken issue with the inclusion of Guthrie’s song in the ceremonies because it ignores that “this land [that] belongs to you and me” was stolen from them, though I would give Guthrie a break here in that the lyrics suggest that the land belongs to everyone equally and somewhat calls into the legitimacy of  private ownership itself. After all, he was com-MU-nist.

[3] I’ve presented Blake’s stanza as it was published, i.e., with random capitals and missing apostrophes. Give me an S, give me an I, give me a C. 

4 thoughts on “Woody Guthrie, Chimney Sweeps, and Taxation

  1. Re: income disparity – selling a house in Charleston could (if all goes well) net me 6 years of salary in profits. Hmm. But like you, I didn’t pick my major or career for the money…
    Re: that last Guthrie stanza – I gave son #2 Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind” for Christmas. “Christ Climbed Down” has always been one of my favorite poems…thanks to my high school English teacher.

  2. Pete Seeger said, “ You have to sing all the verses.” Especially the ones you shared. That inauguration was pretty intense between J-lo, Lady Gaga and Amanda Gorman. Gives me hope.
    And Bernie will be in charge of taxes and the wealthy may have to pay their share. Sounds reasonable to me.
    Brook is lucky to have a great interpreter of lyrics and life around.
    Take care

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