Some people noticed a remarkable thing that happened on the Washington Mall on Sunday at the Obama pre-Inaugural concert, a part of which I posted on Tuesday. The second last appearance was by Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao and Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. What made it remarkable is the inclusion of three verses from the original version that are rarely heard under any circumstances and never heard in the corridors of power, much less in front of a world wide audience and in the presence and in honor of someone about to ascend to the Presidency of the United States. The verses were included at Pete Seeger’s request. Pete is one of my heroes.
I’ve heard Pete sing many times, the first time at Carnegie Hall in 1962 (where he introduced an unknown young folksinger by the name of Bob Dylan). Although I’ve never met him, one of my prized possessions is an autograph poster he signed and dedicated to me and my family on the occasion of a benefit concert for a community group I had helped. This was back in 1991 and the concert was for Ohio Citizens Action/Pittsburgh Against Toxic Incineration, grassroots groups opposing the construction of a massive hazardous waste incinerator practically on top of single family homes and an elementary school. In 1991 community members, and others, committed civil disobedience at the Waste Technologies Incorporated construction site. Among the “others” was actor Martin Sheen, one of the reasons the trial wound up being televised on Court TV. Everyone was arrested, of course, and pled the “necessity defense,” a claim that the law had to be broken to prevent an even greater harm. Needless to say it is rarely successful. But this was an egregious case and even though the local East Liverpool, Ohio prosecutor’s mother-in-law was on the jury, they were acquitted. I was one of the two experts who testified on their behalf about the public health dangers. Al Gore had promised to help them during the presidential campaign of 1992 but once in office didn’t lift a finger and the WTI plant eventually opened. It is a deep stain on Al Gore’s career, although he has done much since to lighten it. The WTI plant remains a clear and present danger to the community. You can see more about it here. Anyway, Pete had a concert to raise money for these courageous folks. I couldn’t go as it was far from where I lived, but he was kind enough to send me the autographed poster. He was a marvelous entertainer with a strong, pitch perfect voice, but alas, his voice is now pretty much gone. But his spirit is as strong as ever, as you can see in the clip below from the Mall concert.
And what 750,000 people got to hear in person and hundreds of millions more heard on TV was the whole song, including the forbidden verses. If all you know of This Land is Your Land are versions made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan or the Kingston Trio or the song you sang in the third grade in school, you won’t know any of them. They were considered too dangerous and subversive. One of the three was slightly altered for the Mall concert, in a very significant way. The last of them is an expression of hope and determination:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
It’s preceded by two other verses, one of which is still incendiary. Actually hearing it on TV was a mind boggling experience for many of us:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
The sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn?t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.
Stunning. But more interesting is what Pete and company did to this seldom heard 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?
For the Mall concert, the despairing query of the last line changed to one of optimism and affirmation:
As they stood hungry, I stood there whistling,
This land was made for you and me.
I raise my glass to you, Pete. You got to sing it at last. And I’m so very, very glad.