What Would Woody Sing?

Goshen College has chosen to retain its tradition of not playing the Star Spangled banner before sporting events. Goshen is not “banning” the National Anthem as the misleading Yahoo headline reads, but rather, they are remaining true to their religious principles.  Goshen is a Mennonite school in northern Indiana and the war imagery from our national song is not in keeping with the school’s motto, “healing the world, peace by peace.”  Goshen fans and visitors will hear “America the Beautiful” before sporting events.

If it were up to me, I would go with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”  I’ve long believed that This Land is Your Land is a far better choice for our national song than the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I’ve even preached on it.

Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would become the Star Spangled Banner on board the British Ship Minden to work for the release of a prisoner of war.  Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry on the night of September 7, 1814, during the battle of Chesapeake Bay near the end of  the War of 1812.    His young country was little more than a generation old and its grip on independence from the British Empire was tenuous.  A defeat that night, might lead to the loss of Baltimore and then Washington  D.C. or worse, the war itself.


I can only imagine the relief and pride Key felt as he saw the young version of the stars and stripes – this one with 15 stars and 15 stripes, rise above Fort McHenry on the morning of  September 8th as he penned the words to what he called The Defense of Fort McHenry  The fort had stood, his new, young nation would stand.


The Defense of Fort McHenry was published as a broadside on September 17, 1814.  Three days later Baltimore newspapers published the poem with a note to sing it to the tune of a song from an English Gentlemen’s Club called the Anacreonic Society, To Anacreon in Heaven.

The tune was tricky enough that if you could sing a verse through in key you were sober enough for another drink!   The Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together, all four verses,  under the title The Star Spangled Banner. The song grew in popularity through the nineteenth century and there is record of the song being played at baseball games as early as 1887. “On 27 July 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374, making The Star-Spangled Banner the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag”.   On  March 3, 1931,  President Herbert Hoover  signed a law making the Star Spangled Banner our country’s national anthem.


When Key wrote the song our young nation was not perfect. It was largely a nation run by rich estate owners and businessmen, and others of noble English descent.  Women had no official say in the government, slavery was legal, and just about everyone thought of the native inhabitants of this country, as the constitution put it, “bloodthirsty savages”.  And yet, there was something vastly different about Key’s young nation.  It was a country with nobility yes, but without a king. It was a place where free white men voted to democratically elect their leaders.  It was a bold new experiment in government and nationhood.   Key still a  right to be filled with joy that it would survive the early threats that bombarded it from foes both internal and external.
Francis Scott Key’s song was no longer just about a triumphant battle, but about a triumphant nation.  And his song came to be played anywhere people of this nation gathered: at parades, memorials, even sporting events.  It celebrated our triumph, our glory, our power.  We were somebody among the nations.  A somebody made up of somebodies gathered from other nations.

Following in the footsteps of Francis Scott Key, others began to write songs about this great country.  Some put new words to the national song of our former imperial mother country “God Save the Queen” and school children learned “My Country Tis of Thee.”  Others wrote new songs about how beautiful this country is, while others asked God to bless this country.


Irving Berlin wrote the first draft of what would become “God Bless America” at Camp Upton on Long Island in 1918 for a Zeigfield style review.  The original lyric contained the line “Make her victorious on land and foam, God Bless America…”  and seemed to reference U.S. involvement in World War I.  Berlin thought it was too heavy for the whimsical mood of the review and shelved it.
Berlin decided to write a “peace” song as World War II geared up in Europe and recalled his “God Bless America” from twenty years earlier.  He changed it around to reflect the different state of the world.

Singer Kate Smith  introduced the revised “God Bless America” during her radio broadcast on Armistice Day, 1938. The song was an immediate sensation. The sheet music was in great demand. Berlin dedicated the royalties to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.”    America was forging through a depression and about to enter a war and it needed reassurance.  It needed to be told God was standing beside us and guiding us:  We were strong and mighty and above all, we would be okay.   Americans loved this song. It told them what they wanted to hear.
Well, most Americans loved it.  One American didn’t love the song.  He thought that what the song said was what people wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear.  It didn’t ring true to the America he knew up close and personal. The America that lost its farms in the dust bowl; the America that picked fruit in the migrant camps of California; the America that rode the rails and slept under bridges out of work; the America that stood hungry in the soup lines.  Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” made this man angry and he wasn’t gonna stand for it.  He was gonna shout back.  He was gonna shout back the only way he knew how. He was gonna write his own song.  His name was Woody Guthrie and that’s what he did – wrote songs.


Woody Guthrie’s first version of an answer song to “God Bless America,” the song that would eventually become “This Land is Your Land,” was called “God Blessed America for Me.”

“Woody Guthrie lifted the melody of  This Land Is Your Land essentially note-for-note from When the World’s on Fire, a song recorded by country/bluegrass legends, The Carter Family, ten years before Guthrie wrote his classic song” (www.wikipedia.org).

Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, and first published it in 1945 (for an excellent source of Guthrie information see the biography Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein).   Most people only know what became the refrain and the first two verses, but the song in its initial form was very long and in its final version has six verses.  Many songbooks leave out the verses about class and poverty. In the original version of “This Land is Your Land” Guthrie spoke about depression era poverty with the verse,

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Guthrie protested the institution of private ownership of land with the verse:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there;
And on the sign there, It said, ‘NO TRESPASSING.’
But on the other side, It didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

In another version, the sign reads “Private Property.”
I’m taking you down the hit parade road this Fourth of July weekend because the anniversary of our nation’s birth is one of those occasions when our national songs are pulled out, like sacred seasonal music or Christmas Carols, at their appropriate time every year, for robust rousing choruses and solemn meditations. Our national songs make me think of the images we have of our country and ourselves, how those images were created, what those images looked like and meant to those who created them, and what they look like and mean now. And what these might mean to us as a people of faith.
When Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner, a new nation was breaking away from the old model of nationhood in European Christendom.  The American Revolutionaries were leaving behind King and Country to begin a new experiment rooted in the idea of democracy and equality. It’s interesting that the new country Francis Scott Key celebrated was breaking away from so many of the trappings of European Christendom because today the majority of Americans still believe America was founded as Christian nation.  Many of the founding Fathers were deists who believed in a God that may have created the universe, but had little to do with it after that or if they were Christians the Christianity they believed in or practiced was Unitarian, non Trinitarian, and nothing like the evangelical, fundamentalist avoiding reason brand of religion about Jesus called Christianity that Christians who believe in the founding of a Christian nation by Christians  (that’s a mouthful) like to imagine.
What we had at the time of the founding of America was basically a bunch of rich English white men wanting to be free of other rich white English men.  Neither of them paid a ton of attention to things a religious thinker like Jesus was actually talking about. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God he is speaking of a radical idea of community.  A community where the first shall be last and the last first. A community where sinners are welcomed home and feasts are thrown in their honor. A community where, as St. Paul would comment, there is no distinction between male and female, slave or free, Jew or gentile.   The Christian community is so radical that some think the word kingdom shouldn’t be used to describe it. Instead we should use the word commonwealth.


The word commonwealth dates from the fifteenth century when the phrase common wealth or common weal, both terms using two words, meant common well-being.   Jesus spoke of this directly in Luke’s gospel. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”(Luke 3:11).  That’s a radical community, committed to the common weal, actually practicing what Jesus taught about selling all they have and giving the money to the poor instead of spouting moral platitudes and economic and patriotic righteousness in Jesus’ name.
Our nation, in its struggle to be born fought to incorporate the idea of common weal.  America declared in its right to exist, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that human beings have inalienable rights and chief among them are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  An idea that was incorporated almost verbatim into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and later into the UUA Principles.  Our nation, with whatever faults it had and has, began as a radical community: no kings, democracy, and pledges in its constitution to “provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare in order to secure the blessings of liberty.”
And yet, our nation has had a long and difficult history of realizing the beloved community and of actualizing the common weal.   We’ve struggled with giving life, liberty and a genuine pursuit of happiness to all Americans.  We’ve struggled with giving every American soul the right to breathe free.  It’s because of this that I hear our national songs with a critical ear.  And I wonder… What Would Woody Sing?
When Francis Scott Key wrote the “Defense of Fort McHenry” he was emboldened by a new nation, and its stirring, elegant and aspiring rhetoric to be the home of the free and the land of the brave.   When the flag rose over Chesapeake Bay, it carried the hope that America could be America; that the new nation could live to fulfill its destiny.


Now, when I hear The Star Spangled Banner, I hear it at sporting events, accompanied by a fly over of military jets and its words describing bombs bursting in air remind me of Iraq and Afghanistan and threats made about Iran and the cost of war not only in dollars but in human lives.   I see stadiums full of flag waving, saluting patriots, not wanting to feel that they are not supporting men and women in the armed service, cheering wildly… and… I see jack booted, goose stepping soldiers marching through Berlin and Red Square and wonder how uncritical our society has become of military imagery in sporting events, television, and in our national image, and I wonder if Francis Scott Key envisioned this for his song? Then I think, What Woody Would Sing?

I imagine someone with a guitar at the microphone at the Ballpark in Arlington singing about how in the middle of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office, I saw my people, and as they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering, If this land was still made for you and me?  And instead of fighter jets, I imagine a line of homeless people marching across the field.  And I wonder what difference it would make if Woody’s song was our national song?  Would we be any better at common wealth?   Would God bless America any less or any more? Would people think it was a song of weakness because it lacked military and war imagery?  Or would people begin to think of our country and themselves differently?
These are the things I have thought about at Fenway and that I still think about at The Ballpark in Arlington Park with my hat off, paying my respects to my country and those who gave their lives to preserve it and its best qualities.  I think, What Would Woody Sing?

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4 thoughts on “What Would Woody Sing?

  1. Thanks, Tony – this is very informative, as well as thought provoking. I do still love “America the Beautiful,” which I think strikes a good balance of appreciation and humility. I still tear up when I sing the verse about the “patriot dream” of “alabaster cities undimmed by human tears.” I’m told that Ronald Reagan, for his inauguration, chose to omit that verse from the song. That, to my mind, speaks volumes.

  2. The Almanac singers managed to produce the ant-war album “Songs for John Doe” followed by the pro-War album “Dear Mr. President” (which included my favorite Guthrie’s “Good Ruben James”) within less than 12 months of each other. Sadly, a good deal of what these guys would sing depended on the beat from Moscow.

  3. Pingback: This Land is Your Land «

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