I was naive. A few years ago, I really thought we were getting beyond racism. In my own little world, my friends and acquaintances who are of different races and nationalities got along with each other. At least any differences we had weren’t related to race. Sadly, the world beyond my cozy circle has not come as far as I once believed.
Gary Clark Jr., is one of the premiere young blues guitarists/vocalists on the planet today. He’s released several albums and shared the stage with the likes of B.B. King, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. In 2012, he appeared onstage at the Obama White House’s “Red, White and Blues” event, televised in the U.S. as a P.B.S. special. His hard work has earned him international acclaim as well as the right to enjoy his fifty acre ranch, which he shares with his wife and two children, outside his hometown of Austin, Texas.
Clark’s latest album and single, “This Land,” was inspired after being confronted by a neighbor, who refused to believe that Clark, who is African-American, could possibly own such a property. This track, with it’s driving hip-hop drum loops and screaming guitar understandably strikes an angry tone. In an interview with the U.K.’s Guardian Newspaper, Clark described what it was like for him growing up in the U.S. South - “getting dog shit in the mailbox, people writing ‘nigger’ on my fence outside my parent’s house, riding around in trucks [putting] Confederate flags over my fence. That was a regular occurrence.” Sadly, in “Trump’s America,” as the song’s lyric refers to it, not much has changed.
Musically, as an album, “This Land” stretches beyond the stylistic boundaries of the blues - encompassing hip-hop, reggae, soul, and old-school r&b influences, paying homage, without being imitative, to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. In the 1960’s, Gaye and Mayfield, with songs like “What’s Goin’ On?” and “People Get Ready” became two of the most prominent musical voices of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps Gary Clark Jr. will emerge as the voice of the 2020’s.
Protest songs have been around as long as I can remember; longer, in fact. When one looks at published lists of the “greatest protest songs of all time,” a lot of the same titles reappear - “We Shall Overcome,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changing,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Neil Young’s “Ohio,” and others. The one song that never makes the “protest” top ten list is a song we all know, grew up with, have heard a million times and have probably been singing since nursery school. It’s that all American standard and Woody Guthrie’s rebuttal to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America“ - “This Land Is Your Land.”
“What?” you ask. “‘This Land Is Your Land’ is a protest song?”
Yep. Read on…
Irving Berlin, the great American songsmith, wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, while serving in the U.S. army. After initially deciding the song wasn’t quite right for the musical he was working on at the time, Berlin, who was Jewish, decided in 1938, after the rise of Adolf Hitler and prior to the U.S. entering World War II, to do a slight re-write and release the song. It was a huge hit for 30’s songstress Kate Smith, and it became her signature tune. By 1940, the song had attained such a ubiquitous presence that it began to irk Woody Guthrie, who was very aware of the inequities in American society. Borrowing partially from the melody of a Carter family song (a common practice in folk music) Woody wrote a comedic folk parody, and called it “God Bless America For Me.” The line was eventually re-written as “This Land Was Made For You And Me.” While Woody’s lyric contained the familiar references to “that ribbon of highway,” “that golden valley” and “her diamond deserts” we all know, it also contained some verses few are acquainted with:
“Was a 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
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me”
At the 2017 Super Bowl, Lady Gaga, an avowed Trump critic, performed a medley containing snippets of both “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land.” In doing so, she cleverly slipped a message across without seeming to be political, as if to say, “love your country, but don’t forget it belongs to all of us.”
“This Land” wasn’t Woody’s only protest song, not by a long shot. Many of his songs dealt with inequality and racism. In 1950, the man who had a sticker on his guitar reading “This Machine Kills Fascists” wrote a new lyric to the melody of his existing ballad, “I Ain’t Got No Home.” This time, the lyric was directed at the landlord of his Brooklyn New York apartment, part of a complex Woody referred to as “Bitch Haven.” The lyric went:
“Beach Haven ain’t my home
I just cain’t pay this rent
My money’s down the drain
And my soul is badly bent
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam
No, no, no! Old Man Trump
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home”
“Old man Trump,” the man who had instructed his employees not to rent to African Americans was, of course, Fred Trump, father of Donald, who was then eight years old. The senior Trump had built the property using Federal Housing Grants. In 1954, Fred Trump was investigated by a Senate Committee for profiteering - exaggerating the cost of building Beach Haven and pocketing the difference - to the tune of 3.7 million dollars. Between 1973 and 1978, another federal investigation, brought by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department focused on “racially discriminating conduct by Trump agents.” In 2019, apparently not much has changed. As the old saying goes, the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Woody never became a big star in his own lifetime. In the 1950’s, during the McCarthy era, he was branded a Communist for his outspokenness and palled up with another like-minded rebel, Will Geer, who had suffered the same Congressional fate after finger-pointing by fellow actors Adolph Menjou and Burl Ives. Will, of course, later gained fame as “Grandpa Walton.” Woody, who passed away in 1967 at the age of 55 from Huntington’s Disease, lacked commercial success in his lifetime, but his musical, political and ideological legacy, furthered by proteges like Bob Dylan, who travelled from Minnesota to New York City to become, in his words,”…Guthrie’s greatest disciple,” is enormous and ongoing.
Now, Gary Clark, Jr., inspired by Woody’s “This Land,” has created his own “This Land.” It’s sad to think that in 2019 such a song would still be relevant, much less necessary. Woody would have been proud.
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