Elsewhere on NRO this fine morning, Lee Habeeb has a terrific column on Woody Guthrie and “This Land Is Your Land,” a song I have always loathed, mostly on musical grounds — the consciously childlike melody, and the stiltedness of its central rhyme (“this land is my land . . . New York island”). I especially dislike it at my town’s Memorial Day ceremony when it intrudes on the Fifth Graders’ otherwise splendid repertoire of “God Bless America” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
But Lee reminds us there are other reasons to loathe it. From Inauguration Day 2009:
Hope and change were in the air that cold winter day, and Seeger and Springsteen figured it was time for America to hear the rarely performed stanza.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
A great big sign there said, “private property”;
But on the back side, it didn’t say nothin’;
That side was made for you and me.
No wonder we’ve never heard that stanza. It changes Guthrie’s song from a celebration of America into a bitter indictment of a nation built on unjust private-property rights.
It’s not quite true that we’ve “never heard” that verse. I have a strong recollection from back in the mid-Nineties when the Kennedy Center Honors decided to honor that old Stalinist Pete Seeger. Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo concluded the night with “This Land” and sang the little-known verse, substituting “Proposition 187″ for the words “private property.” If memory serves, Mrs. Clinton clapped her hands with delight, and Seeger laughed — as well he might: He understood Arlo Guthrie was slyly using the specific topical reference as a cover for the more general point. Seeger, a man who colluded in the half-century-long theft of “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) from a penniless African musician called Solomon Linda, has a long history of indifference to property rights other than his own.