Article by Manny Rodríguez
Many Americans remember their grade school years pridefully singing about the farthest corners of our country. Woody Guthrie entered the consciousness of every American in the 1960s. People in countless classrooms, political events, and rallies loudly sang the words of an “Oklahoma cowboy”: “From the red wood forests to Gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me”. Like most social expressions, the ruling class placed its stamp of approval upon Guthrie’s message to American workers. The approval would only come with the removal of Guthrie’s lyrics that attacked the property of big business. The image of a “freedom highway” painted by the words of Guthrie, was taken by the ruling class, distorted, and used as a divisive weapon to breed an anti-working-class patriotism known as nationalism. This nationalism is not to be confused with the revolutionary purpose it serves when wielded by the national liberation struggles of colonial peoples or oppressed nationalities. Nationalism, great power chauvinism in the case of the modern United States, in the minds of young Americans provided fertile grounds for lulling the people into identifying their interests with the property interests of the employer class.
The true message of Guthrie was stripped of its reminder to workers. It is we, the working people, who were robbed for the accumulation of capital in the hands of the bosses. In the words of folk singer Pete Seeger, inspired by Guthrie, it is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities, dug the mines, built the workshops, and laid the endless miles of railroad. Now, we stand outcast looking at the wonders of the country we have built. Guthrie draws attention to this in the following lines: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people. By the relief office I seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking – is this land made for you and me?” Guthrie’s question demonstrated his political commitment to expose the brutality of life under capitalism. Through his songs, the voices silenced by the roar of factory machinery, empty promises of politicians, and the cracking of police batons were allowed to be heard.
On January 18, 2009, two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, the attempt of the ruling class to smoke screen Guthrie’s message was clear. The unofficial national anthem was used as a slick attempt at projecting the fable of American exceptionalism. A myth used to cast a shadow upon the fact that the richest nation in the world, the “land of the free”, has more than half-a-million homeless people. The “freedom highway” was deceitfully used to appeal to a false patriotic unity force fed to the workers by the capitalist class. The class that tirelessly divides and confuses the working class with great power chauvinism are also compelled to be hypocritical in the usage of popular culture. Songs of a free land are used to conceal from the people the democracy for the rich and befuddle the people with lies of freedom and equality. They mock the working class and exploited people in blunting the radical message flowing through the history of folk music in the United States. Worker, ask yourself, in the words of Pete Seeger, which side are you on?