This Land Was Made for You… And Me (Epilogue)

March 18, 2019

 

First off, thanks for the comments, on this website and on Facebook, regarding part one of  my last blog, "This Land Was Made For You... And Me." All the comments were welcome, and I particularly appreciated the polite way in which the ideas were framed. A few of these in particular stuck with me. 

 

One reader mentioned having grown up in the South, and said they had never been racist. I have no reason to doubt that statement. I have many friends from  the South. I am happy to say that none of them are racists.

 

Another suggested that Texas is not part of the South. It seems the answer to that question all depends on who you ask. The subject of the piece, blues musician Gary Clark Jr., is quoted as using the phrase “growing up in the South” in describing the racism he personally experienced. Clark is from Austin. There are differing opinions on whether Texas is a Southern state or not. Both views have a certain amount of validity. Texas covers a huge area, and means many things to many people. Certainly, a good part of Texas should be considered, culturally and geographically, as the “Southwest.” That said, Texas was also both a slave state and part of the Confederacy, so the viewpoint that it is a “Southern state,” historically, can also be considered correct. 

 

Another point, one I must take exception to, was the suggestion that “Hollywood Liberals” should keep their opinions to themselves. It’s ironic that this piece, which is essentially about the freedom to speak out, through music, against injustice, should generate this response. To me, one of our great failings as people is that we tend to rely on “information” that only supports what we already believe. With that, we greatly limit ourselves in terms of our ability to learn and grow. This statement, as well as the ubiquitous “why don’t you just stick to acting?” which I see again and again as a fan response on actor friends' social media pages, is just silly. We are all entitled to our opinions, and also to monitor the content of our own social media pages; that is to say, to edit responses we consider inappropriate. To me, actors are particularly well-suited to comment on society for the simple reason that they are habitual observers of human behavior. It’s part of the job. Though I haven’t acted for a while, I can’t break the habit of people watching. It’s just too interesting.

 

Finally, it always amuses (and sometimes frustrates) me that fans of “The Waltons” expect the actors to actually be the characters we portrayed. The show, which was set in the South, and created by Earl Hamer, Jr., a Virginian, was about a strong, loving, morally-grounded family who generally communicated well with each other and treated everyone equally. The show was enormously popular in rural areas, where people for the most part tend to be religious, and conservative, politically. This led some of our audience to make assumptions about The Waltons as a family as well as about the actors who portrayed them. The fact is, The Waltons (in the story) were all supporters of F.D.R.; that is to say, “New Deal” Democrats. While I don’t presume to speak for the other actors, I think it’s fair to say that we come from a lot of different backgrounds, different religions, and, for the most part, are fairly liberal and open-minded. In the 90's, Ralph Waite, (John Walton), who had been a practising minister before becoming an actor, ran for the U.S. Congressional seat in Riverside, California as a Democrat, and the cast of The Waltons turned out to support him. Ralph would have made a wonderful  Representative for the simple reason that he had no agenda but a burning desire to help people. Now that I think about it, maybe we're not so different from the characters we portrayed.

 These days, many of us could do a whole lot better in terms of how we speak to each other, particularly on social media. While none of us are anonymous when we post, there is an unfortunate sense of security in the digital domain. People often say things online they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone face-to-face. An additional disadvantage with writing in general is that it is impossible for readers to see the expression on the writer’s face, or to hear their tone of voice. Inflection can completely change the meaning of a phrase from sincerity to sarcasm, so unless one makes the effort to write with great clarity, it's easy to be misinterpreted. It's always a good idea to think twice before hitting "post."

 

Some of the lesser-known verses of Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” have to do with inequities in society, with fences, and the idea of what those fences represent. These days, people in many countries are divided as never before. One of the common issues, globally, is the fear of immigrants and refugees from other countries. Every country is taking a different approach, from very liberal to hard-line, and there doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer. The U.S. is struggling with this, and it is also a less-often mentioned aspect of the Brexit dilemma in the U.K. Certainly, fear is not an asset. I think it’s best to keep in mind we are all part of a world family. When one of our own personal family needs help, we take them in, maybe not forever, maybe conditionally, but we help. Obviously, these days, security is an issue, but from my perspective as a lay-observer in this area, it would seem some sort of sensible, middle-ground approach is best, as there is as much strength to be gained in diversity as in unity. 

 

2019 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, (brought there by Dutch traders who had seized the Africans from a Spanish ship) not as immigrants, not as refugees, but as a commodity. This was essentially the beginning of systemic racism in America. In order to profit from the business of human trafficking, it was necessary for the captors to adopt the mindset that their cargo was somehow less than human; that profit justified actions, that slaves were in fact better off with the conditions they were offered, that it was okay to separate families, to deny slaves the right to learn to read or write, and to inflict severe punishments for the slightest “offense.” Frederick Douglass, the great American orator, who was a very religious man, recounted in his book “Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” that, ironically, some of the most brutal slave owners he encountered were deeply religious people. One of the most cruel, in fact, was a minister. Douglass made a point of mentioning in the conclusion of his book that this did not at all cause him to turn away from his own religious convictions. (I highly recommend this book. It was written in 1845, during slavery, in a style that is extremely vivid and articulate. This is all the more remarkable given that Douglass was compelled to teach himself to read and write in secrecy, as discovery of this would have led to punishment. The book chronicles all aspects of Douglass’  life as a slave, leaving out only his means of escape, as he knew this might hinder other slaves from reaching freedom.)

 

We all know how this story evolved. A Civil War was fought. The slaves were freed. Then, other mistakes were made. As is often the case after a war, the South, defeated and in ruins, was further punished. Instead of trying to heal wounds, the infliction of additional suffering created further hatred and resentment. Unfairly, newly freed African Americans were often made to bare the brunt of this anger. Unbelievably, today, in the twenty first century, the legacy of this hatred and prejudice is still being passed down, and still playing out in many parts of the country, often in less obvious, but significant ways.  

 

Recently, I pondered what America would be like if that Dutch ship and the ones that followed had never landed. What if we had not benefited from the contributions of African Americans? One can speculate endlessly, but I'll address just one aspect that resonates deeply with me: From my personal perspective as a musician, virtually all the music I love and admire - the music that inspired me to pick up a guitar, to pursue a career in music - came from the descendants of those Africans. The seeds of our distinctly American musical art forms - originating with field chants and work songs, to spirituals, blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, rock and roll, hip-hop, rap, and on and on and on - were sprouted in Africa, mixed with a bit of British or Irish folk music and became the music we listen to today. Without the blues, we would have had no Chuck Berry, or Hank Williams, or Elvis, or The Beatles; no Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong, no Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, no Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, and no Gary Clark, Jr.  Certainly, my life would not have been the same. I really can’t bear the thought of it. Luckily, I don’t have to.

 

Happy Spring, everybody. Be nice to each other. 

 

JW

 

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