It was January 18, 2009, and 500,000 people huddled in the cold to watch a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama. They were treated to the words of some of our great actors and musical artists, people such as Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Beyoncé, and Bono. They were even treated to words from the president-elect himself.
As the event came to a close, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen led the crowd in a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song most of us think we know, but don’t — a song we love, although we might not if we knew why the song was written and what the song is really about.
And what the man who wrote the song was about, too.
What most Americans don’t know is that Guthrie didn’t like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a rebuttal.
What most Americans also don’t know is that Guthrie didn’t like his own country and wanted to fundamentally transform it along the lines of his heroes, Marx and Lenin.
And what most Americans had never heard until that day in Washington, D.C., was a stanza that is typically left out of public presentations of “This Land Is Your Land” because it is so radical. The lines are as radical as the writer himself, who dedicated his life to the overthrow of capitalism and private-property rights.
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 odd that Springsteen made this choice. He lives in Rumson, N.J., a Jersey Shore enclave where the average home goes for a working-class price of $1 million. Springsteen also owns a 200-plus-acre New Jersey farm that he uses as a tax dodge. Add to the mix his intellectual-property catalogue, which generates millions in royalties each year, and the Boss is one of the wealthiest property owners in America.
But back to Woody Guthrie, and — as the late Paul Harvey liked to say — the rest of the story. This is the story you didn’t hear this past weekend during the endless encomiums to Guthrie as the Left celebrated his 100th birthday.
As Will Kaufman points out in his book Woody Guthrie, American Radical, the folksinger was not driven by progressive abstractions; he dedicated every part of his life to promoting economic, social, and racial equality for all, and he did so by pushing for a dramatic transformation of America itself.
For Guthrie, Kaufman explains, it was all about the proletariat and bettering the condition of the average worker. “I never sing nor play one single word or note that is not for the help of the working classes to know more, feel better, rise up, and to own and control this world that they have built,” Guthrie said.
But it was the means to that end that made Guthrie a radical. He wanted America to follow the Soviet model of government ownership of the means of production, wherein central planners and bureaucrats distribute the wealth for all workers to enjoy.
Along with the thousands of songs Guthrie wrote, he penned columns under the title “Woody Sez” for the People’s World and the Daily Worker, both papers published by the Communist Party USA. And although there is no evidence that he ever joined the Communist Party — Guthrie was too much of a vagabond and general crank to join a club that would accept him as a member — he even managed to shower Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin with praise.
Guthrie was the first musical icon of the 20th century to make it cool to sing songs about the workers’ revolution, ushering in the later tunes of Phil Ochs; Joan Baez; Billy Bragg; Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Green Day; and the Clash.
Guthrie was protest music’s Che Guevera; his weapons were a pen and guitar, not a gun.
Kaufman’s book chronicles Guthrie’s close ties to Communist Party activists, and the frustration he encountered studying Marxism. Guthrie couldn’t get past the theoretical nature of the material. In his copy of Lenin’s Theory of the Agrarian Question he scribbled a note that he wished he could “make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin and Wilkie and Roosevelt and Earl Browder fly down and roost in my brain.”
But despite his difficulties understanding the texts, Guthrie was committed to bringing the work of Karl Marx to the general public. Indeed, in his personal copy of Capital, he wrote: “Will memorize contents in a week or so. . . . I’d like to try to write all of these things down in short words.”
If only Guthrie had studied the Pilgrims’ experiment with collectivism, he could have saved a lot of time. He would have learned that we gave Marxism the college try back in Plymouth, Mass., and things didn’t end well.
In the early years of the Pilgrim experiment, the community farmed and harvested as a collective. No one owned the livestock or the land they tilled. But, as the Pilgrims soon learned, when no one owns anything, everyone owns nothing, because nothing gets done.
The crop yield dropped to a dangerous low, and the animal-husbandry operation nearly failed. Most people think that the Pilgrims suffered primarily from tough weather and tougher land conditions. But what really threatened their lives was bad public policy based on a bad idea.
Because of “community ownership,” the hardworking Pilgrims were compelled to subsidize the lazy Pilgrims, and the lazy Pilgrims had no incentive to put in an honest day’s work, because they could profit from the work of others.
It was an Occupy Wall Street moment long before the birth of our nation.
As you can imagine, the idea of spreading the wealth around didn’t sit well with the more diligent Pilgrims. Why bother to toil, only to have the fruits of your labor passed along to those who don’t lift a finger?
Collectivism soon pitted Pilgrim against Pilgrim and spawned a class warfare of sorts: the working class versus the slackers.
William Bradford’s history of the colony recounts that all of that common ownership had the effect of demoralizing the community. The industrious Pilgrim, Bradford noted, “had no more in division of victuals and clothes” than the idle Pilgrim did.
Luckily for the locals, the leaders at Plymouth took action. They didn’t appoint a commission to study why the slackers were slacking, and they didn’t create a tax regime to punish the worker-bee Pilgrims.
The leaders had a better idea. What if everyone owned the land they worked and kept the fruits of their labor?
That epiphany changed the course of American history. Here is how Bradford described the change in policy in the spring of 1623:
And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family.
And there it ended, the American experiment with collectivism.
When these settlers became responsible for their own little piece of the Plymouth Rock, things got better fast. Crop yields grew, and livestock population increased. The region started to hum with the kind of work ethos we’ve come to expect from weather-seasoned New Englanders.
In that same history recorded by Bradford, he described the results of this paradigm shift from “community ownership” to private property: “This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious.”
If only Woody Guthrie had spent more time reading American history and less time trying to master Lenin and Marx, his music — and his sad life — might have turned out differently.
Kaufman noted that Guthrie the idealistic Marxist developed a bitter side and sometimes struck a militant chord. The final verse of Guthrie’s ballad “Jesus Christ” suggests that one day the workers will finally lose patience and put the blame where it belongs: “ ’Twould be better for you rich if you’d never been born. For you have laid Jesus Christ in his grave.”
So much for turning the other cheek. Guthrie in this grim song took the violence he believed was inherent in capitalism and turned it back on the ruling propertied class. This verse exists only on paper because no known recording of Guthrie singing it exists. Perhaps he had the good sense not to sing what he really felt, knowing that the American public, even many of his progressive friends, would reject such bitterness.
Perhaps even he understood just how ugly the verse sounded.
So the next time you hear “This Land Is Your Land,” think about those lines you never heard in the song, and about the “Jesus Christ” song Guthrie never recorded.
Think about our latest incarnation of Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and all of that property he owns.
Think about those pragmatic Pilgrims and their short-lived experiment with collectivism.
And thank God for the Constitution, which protects our property rights from radicals old and new who are hell-bent on transforming the country we love.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.