Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
Woody Guthrie was born 103 years ago today, July 14.
Of the handful of candidates for an American anthem, This Land is Your Land is uniquely without martial spirit, divine invocation, or high rhetoric. Instead a man, walking and talking, this land, you and me. Written in New York City-where also lived Irving Berlin, whose God Bless America Guthrie wrote in response to-it is of the west. It transcends causes, but then again one verse seems written directly to celebrate public lands and their freedom. It has two versions:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "no trespassing"
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me
Was a big 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
This land was made for you and me
Memo to Rand Paul, who was in Nevada recently talking up public lands takeover: why does a "libertarian" want to give western liberty away?
Two biographers call Guthrie’s month in Portland-in spring 1941, at 28-the most productive of his musical life. His Columbia River and Grand Coulee songs carry the earned aspirations of those days-hopeful, sobered, urgent, and yes, collective-and also its ignorance and overreach (we should see it humbly as each day we commit the same crimes.) Chicagoan Studs Terkel said these songs were "touching people where they live, moving them up a little higher." I choose to think had Woody stayed longer in the Northwest, his genius antennae would have picked up how the dams, and dammers, were also moving the native people down a lot lower. Instead Indians are present only as cartoon figures in one no-longer-played verse of Roll On Columbia.
But you can’t stay analytic about Roll On Columbia, it’s too good, it wins you. In a talk to some Oregon fishermen years ago, David James Duncan made up a dialogue between Woody in heaven and a fishing man, that led into a bunch of new verses on the side of taking out some dams, to help many good people today.
I heard Don Sampson, then leader of the Umatilla Confederated Tribes, invoke Roll On at a conference in Hood River with the Columbia just out the window. Yes, he said, your power has helped turn our darkness to dawn, we have gratitude for our light from the river, but let us have as much for the light in the river: salmon, the power of the Creator who made the darkness and dawn. It’s a wonderful image: the light in the river.
In the spirit of such generational dialogue with a great song, I had the idea of a national contest for new Roll On verses to reach and inspire people for restoring the lower Snake. The prizes could be $266, which Bonneville Power paid Guthrie for a month of songs in 1941. I wrote Arlo Guthrie to ask permission and maybe his help, and tried a couple ways to get the letter to him, but I don’t think it ever did, and then I got swamped in other things. Arlo is in Boise August 8. He does a fine, warm show; he makes you feel good. He always sings a few of his dad’s songs. Usually one is I Hear You Sing Again, which I’ve read is about Woody’s mother. He left the words but not the music when he died, so Janis Ian added that maybe 40 years later. It is beautiful.
– Pat Ford