This Land is Your Land: the forbidden verses are sung on The Mall

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.

More like this

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testified in Congress yesterday. Not surprisingly he said what Generals always say: "we" can win. Back in 1963 Pete Seeger gave a concert in Melbourne, Australia. If you never saw him in concert, this is what he was always like. The…
The title sounds like the opening to a really odd joke, but in fact it was the concert bill last night in Albany. Bob Dylan is touring as always, and Elvis Costello is along doing a solo set, with Amos Lee opening for both. Kate and I went to the show, and it was... unusual. I'll put most of the…
Something about Sunday mornings leads me to really enjoy listening to folk and other acoustic music. These guys ended up being electric, though. The Byrds were a Los Angeles-based group that grew out of the folk music scene in 1964. The original line-up was Jim McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman…
As of yesterday it's winter, astronomically speaking. At the moment, it doesn't look like it's ushering in a Season of Peace. But it's not too late. A young Judy Collins on Pete Seeger's 1960s TV show with Pete's musical setting of Ecclesiastes with his added verse:

I do not recall the 'nobody living' verse, but the 'big high wall' and 'in the squares of the city' verses were on a Pete Seeger/Sesame St record our children had round about 1980. As I recall the verses were as you have them printed, but I do not remember if he was asking or whistling - I thought he was wondering.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 21 Jan 2009 #permalink

Richard: Yes, "wondering" is another one of the variants for "asking." You are right about that. There are other variants for some of these, too. I've heard slightly different versions of the Private Property verse. A folk song is a living thing.

Steinn: Yes, that's right. It was an outrageous exercise of alleged intellectual property rights. It was a public event on public property. But the foreign sources are now making it possible. Both of the clips from the concert I've put up are from European outlets, which I don't think HBO has any control over.

You seem to think that your time is over Revere.

I doubt that. But one thing is for certain. You have lived one hell of a life.

I have got to up my game.

Thank you for posting this. I couldn't watch the festivities as they happened, so I've been tracking bits and pieces down on the internets. This, after the inaugural address, was what I most wanted to see.

Yay!!!! THANKS for the clip. Wow. This makes me sad I didn't go in person.

I spent a few summers of my teenage years at what I always referred to as 'hippie camp' in Michigan. We always sang those verses. But then, Pete Seeger was there one summer way back in the day -the old timers still talk about it ;-) And we sang other things far more subversive, I suppose. Like Universal Soldier.

By the way, am I the only one who's been humming "Alleluia, the great storm is over, Lift up your wings and fly!" all week, ever since Bush left?

I first heard Pete perform live at a college concert in 1961. He was hired for a 90 minute concert, but stayed on stage for 3 hours, with no break, because he discovered the audience was really into singing harmony on the choruses.

In case you aren't aware, there is an effort underway to get Pete nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If you want to sign the petition, which already has over 23,000 signatures, it is here:

In addition, there is an effort underway to celebrate Pete's 90th birthday, May 3rd, 2009, with a large series of For Pete's Sake, Sing!" concerts worldwide (and an associated songwriting contest). Keep an eye out for ones that may be happening near you.

Thanks, revere! I'm now recalling things I hadn't realized I'd forgotten.

And to Pete, "Right on!"

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 21 Jan 2009 #permalink

My father is a physician, and a fairly conventional one at that. Rarely speaks of politics. But when I was a kid, he used to play Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie albums on the weekends. Subtle indoctrination, perhaps, but I am glad he did.

Music and the arts may save us all. Maybe.

We need anything we can get to decapitate the propaganda machine.

Great result, great event, great song. Shame on HBO.

chezjake: Thanks for letting me know. I didn't know about it but have signed and sent emails about it to a bunch of others.

Repeating for others: Petition for Pete Seeger to get the Nobel Peace Prize:

This post and the clip made me cry. I have known Pete since 1947 when he was the music teacher at my elementary school in New York City, the City and Country School. Perhaps the encounter I remember most fondly was the 25th Birthday Party for Public Citizen, when I introduced my young sons to Pete. Damn if he didn't remember both me and my wife from almost thirty years earlier. He was so pleased to meet our sons.

But I also remember the less happy days. In about 1957, I was in high school, organizing a fund raising concert for the NAACP and offered to have Pete perform. To my shock, the NAACP did not want Pete to appear for them. They offered up Josh White, but remembering how he had named names before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, we, the high schools students, said "No thanks." But the future looks bright again!

See also:…

Pete Seeger is of course aware of this history. The musicians Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, who have often performed together with him, tell me that Seeger sometimes sang the following lyrics: âThis land is your land, but it once was my land, until we sold you Manhattan Island. You put our nations on reservations, This land was stole by you from me.â Pete didnât sing these words at the Lincoln Memorial. But as immigrants, we should not forget them.

I also grew up hearing the "subversive" lyrics. It's not until the last few days that I realized that they were considered "subversive" and not widely known. No wonder I'm such a misfit. Perhaps my time has come?

I'm sad to have missed the concert in person (watched it on HBO in my hotel room at ScienceOnline09 funnily enough) but I was at the inauguration on Tuesday and they re-played it on the jumbotrons to keep us rabble entertained, complete with closed captioning of the lyrics so there it was in front of a million people in plain text! Needless to say we all sang along most heartily. HBO: head to keyboard.

One of my formative experiences as an undergrad at Duke in 1968 included a Pete Seeger anecdote. Immediately after MLK's shooting, a small group of the most "radical" students initiated a Gandhi-style civil disobedience action focused on the university's low wages for mostly black janitorial-level workers, plus its refusal to allow recognition of, or a vote for, a small local union representing them. Starting with a couple of hundred students, the group simply sat down in the main quadrangle with the resolution not to leave, day or night, classes and tests or not, until there was some substantive institutional change in policies. After a day, there were four hundred, sleeping in sleeping bags, draping themselves with plastic tarps during rain, distributing sandwiches for food and taking only brief bathroom breaks. This was the stage at which I joined the group and I can simply say the agreement was pretty firm that we were determined to flunk out of that school rather than continue to participate in its policies. After several days, the numbers camping en masse were approaching a thousand, included grad students and professors, with emergency meetings of the board of trustees underway. Duke simply shut down functioning. Somewhere in there, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger arrived for a couple of days of leading us in songs. (I can't say I recall those "This Land is Your Land" lyrics but they sure resonate as familiar!) Eventually a very discomforted Duke board chairman was grabbed up arm in arm with the union organizers and Seeger and Baez and held swaying to about two thousand people singing "We Shall Overcome," with sufficient concessions after a week or so that the whole thing could comfortably disband.

Now, the Seeger anecdote. Various network TV crews were there eventually, giving us some thought that perhaps this sort of completely non-violent event could serve as a template for other immediate responses to the issues of the day if accurately publicized. To our dismay, there was absolutely no mention of the situation on any national news program. Towards the end of it all, Pete stood up with his banjo case and said something like "I've been talking with the TV people here and they say the reason there won't be any coverage of this event is that there's been *no violence*!!! Well. See this little pebble? I'm putting it in my banjo case here, and I promise, if there's ever another time a TV crew tells me such a thing, I WILL break their camera lens with this stone so they'll have their damn violence!"

Amazing man. I've never seen him in person again so haven't had a chance to yell out "Do you still have that pebble from the '68 Duke 'Vigil'?" Heh. Maybe somebody here can ask him.

That was so awesome! I have no other words for it. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger and I'm so delighted to get to see this because I missed it...

as always, thanks for the context Revere! and man, haven't heard some of those verses in ages.

By BikeMonkey (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

For those not familiar with Abel's (apt) reference, Woody Guthrie had "This Machine Kills Fascists" emblazoned on his guitar.

Thanks so much for sharing this. I knew about the WTI plant, but I didn't know about the versus of This Land. And since I missed the concert, I would have missed the whole thing if not for you. Thank you.

Thanks for this, Revere. I didn't know all the history, though I was struck by those lines when I heard them performed. I watched this online with my 9-year-old son on my lap, with tears in my eyes. I had told him about Pete before, but we have been talking about him even more since that concert. The teachable moment. I hope he remembers. As parents we throw these things at our kids, never knowing which ones will stick.

I've known these verses all my life.

I hope this is not a momentary excursion but the beginning of getting this back into widespread play.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 24 Jan 2009 #permalink

Hank, thanks to the joys of youtube, you can find your favorite dirty hippie singing dirty hippie songs just about anytime you like. blog it, email it, whatev....

OK, who had the youtube clip pulled? Some sour replublican lawyer? Who had the rigts tobroadcast this and didn't think a moment of American history like that should be availbe to all as an inspiration now and forever?

He or she should be found, exposed and subjected to terrible obloquy.

Thanks, Peter. Found another one. Trying to stay one jump ahead of the bastards.

You should write your memoirs around things like Pete Seeger and your palin' with terrorists post. Personalized history is great reading and the liberal almost-was of the 60s is being lost to the dang kids these days...think of it as once more into the breach?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 30 May 2009 #permalink

DM: Lots of memoirs these days. I guess there are interested readers. My problem is that I am not interested in my own story. But thanks for the encouragement.