Thoughts on the Tragic Tale of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

“This Land is Your Land,” may have had it’s teeth removed as a criticism of nationalism and a response to Berlin’s classic patriotic piece, but Woody Guthries spirit is that of complete devotion and reckless defense of one’s beliefs, and that spirit is inseparable from the history of music, regardless of political affiliation.

     In 2016, Budweiser announced that they would temporarily rebrand their flagship beer as “America,” with a can featuring the words “from the redwood forests, to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me” on their label. They’re quoting one of the greatest songwriters to ever live, Woody Guthrie. Budweiser knows this, but what they, and most Americans, don’t know is that Guthrie would be rolling in his grave if he’d known about this usage of his writing. Why? To answer that question, we’ll need to get to know Woody Guthrie a bit better.

   Guthrie is one of the most infamous writers of all time, and the godfather of folk music. His very long list of famous fans includes Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and most notably, Bob Dylan. He was a skinny, scruffy-haired man who rode trains from town to town brandishing a small, black guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” emblazoned on the body. This was the early days of folk music, nearly a decade before the formation of classic groups like The Weavers, who were later ostracized after being accused of communist sympathies. For The Weavers, these accusations were false, but had they been made against Guthrie, they would’ve stuck.

   Woody wrote columns for a Communist magazine called The People’s World from the summer of 1939 through 1940 and became close friends with John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. He found a job for KFVD in California playing what was then known as “hillbilly music,” along with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman on the radio. Late in 1939, however, after the outbreak of World War II and the Nonaggression Pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union, American opinion became to shift heavily toward the patriotic, a trend that still reverberates today. Because of this, Guthrie’s Communist sympathies were seen as a liability by KFVD, who cut him loose soon after.

   Woody left California and landed in New York, sleeping on the couch of American activist and actor, Will Geer. It was here that he recorded his first LP, Dust Bowl Ballads, comprised of the protest songs he had played on the radio in California. While listening to the radio, Guthrie became annoyed by what he perceived to be an overplaying of Irving Berlin’s classic patriotic tune, “God Bless America.”

   The purpose of playing Berlin’s song was obvious. The goal was to inspire patriotism and a dedication to American ideals in response to the outbreak of the World War. This would come to be played even more often as the struggle went on and in the Cold War, the song would be used to encourage the dichotomy of America as a Christian nation as apposed to the “godless Communists” in the Soviet Union. Having been persecuted and driven across the country, away from his family still in California, for his political beliefs, Guthrie chose to double down. He did that through writing his own response to Irving Berlin in the form of his most infamous song, “This Land is Your Land.”

   To be clear, “This Land,” as it was originally titled, was not an anti-American song, far from it. It was, instead, a song meant to praise the beauties of the American land and criticize the  issues which Guthrie believed to be ruining this, namely private property laws and the US government’s disregard for the poor. There are two key verses, rarely, if ever, played today, which demonstrate this.

   “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.” This appears near the end of the song, which tells the story of Woody taking a long walk across the country, admiring the beauty of the land, only to have it interrupted by this wall. The final verse goes on to describe the other interruption to his walk.

   “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.” This verse originally ended, as did every other verse, with the line “God blessed America for me,” a more direct call to Berlin’s original track.

   Today, the song’s original protest roots have been all but lost. Guthrie passed away in 1967 at the age of 55 after suffering from Huntington’s Disease for many years, and living out the final years of his life in a psychiatric ward, having divorced his wife and left his family, including a young Arlo Guthrie, a few years prior. In 1961, he met Bob Dylan, who had privately fallen in love with Guthrie’s music and style and chosen to model his own career after Woody.

   Guthrie is one of the most iconic and controversial writers of all time, a devout Communist, and a staunch critic of the nationalism he saw developing in American media and discourse. Yet, he is often known to non-fans as the guy who wrote a patriotic folk tune that landed on the side of a Budweiser can. So, is Guthrie a failure? Absolutely not.

   While his name may not be in the mouths of everyday music fans, and his song may be misrepresented today, his style, his staunch commitment to his beliefs, and his decision to express those beliefs in his music live on today. Bob Dylan carried the torch and became a leading man in the cultural fight for civil rights, the rock and roll movement carried Guthrie’s torch to openly detest US action in Vietnam, and it still lives on in much of the politically charged rap music today.

   “This Land is Your Land,” may have had it’s teeth removed as a criticism of nationalism and a response to Berlin’s classic patriotic piece, but Woody Guthries spirit is that of complete devotion and reckless defense of one’s beliefs, and that spirit is inseparable from the history of music, regardless of political affiliation.

HEAR THIS LAND IS YOUR LANDhttps://open.spotify.com/track/7CNaYAdLyi86kofGafReiT

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Eric Church Turns in Imperfect but Listenable LP

Put simply, Desperate Man gives something to enjoy on every track, and yet leaves much to be desired just as often.

     Eric Church is a country/americana artist from Nashville, TN. He debuted in the late 2000’s with two modestly successful releases on Capitol Records before signing with EMI and dropping 2011’s Chief. The album rode the success of its lead single, “Drink In My Hand,” and went triple platinum, establishing Church as a major player in Nashville’s radio country scene. He followed up with two more LP’s in 2014 and 2015, each of which went platinum and rode singles like “Springsteen,” “Give Me Back My Hometown,” and most recently, “Record Year.”

   Church, especially the version of him presented by EMI, is known for a certain outlaw flare, a more traditional country twang in his vocal, and heavily rock inspired instrumentation. While he is, by no means, a member of the growing outsider movement in country music, he is certainly a more radio friendly form of what people like Stapleton, Isbell, and Simpson are doing. He has tended to position himself against the grain in a few safe ways, but for the most part he is one of the higher quality members of the modern Nashville stable. His recent comment in criticism of the NRA, inspired by his being present at the deadly massacre in Las Vegas in 2017, was easily the most controversy he’s faced in the industry thus far, and they left me curious as to what we’d hear from him next. Well, Desperate Man is here, and it is a mixed bag in just about every way imaginable. We’ll start with the good.

   Church’s vocals on this album are very good. His twang fits very well in most of these tracks and he walks the line between county and blues in an interesting way. Tracks like “Higher Wire,,” and the closer, “Drowning Man,” benefit from this quite a bit and his upper register is surprisingly well executed.

   The instrumentation is also excellent here, perhaps the record’s best quality. The acoustic guitar on “Some Of It,” and the extremely creative opening to “Heart Like a Wheel,” stand out as a few especially exciting moments, and the title track even features a latin percussion section, but Drowning Man is really adorned with excellent instrumental work throughout.

   Eric Church’s ability to write earworm hooks is also here in spades, as it has been on previous projects. The chorus for “Jukebox and a Bar,” is perfectly hummable and the prechorus to the album’s best track, “Hangin’ Around,” is absolutely one of the best hooks of the year. Additionally, “Hippie Radio,” has a fun way of incorporating classic rock phrases into its chorus and will leave you singing along for days to come.

   Even the lyricism is well done here, mainly coming from the mind of Church himself as well as a few friends and collaborators. “The Snake,” for example, opens the record with an enigmatic story over the atmospheric, blue guitar and “Monsters,” is genuinely interesting, playing with the ideas of “killing a monster,” by turning on the light or checking under the bed. These are very nice touches which aren’t expected on a mainstream country album these days.

   For all of these reasons, Desperate Man can hardly be called unenjoyable. However, there are a few deep seeded issues which run through the heart of this album, many of them owing to unfinished ideas.

   There are some horrendous production decisions, most notably the vocal effect on “Solid,” which butchers an otherwise fun cut. The worst offensive, though, is this albums constant tendency to open tracks with the seeds for sprawling, interesting instrumentals before cutting them short in favor of traditional, 16 bar structure. “The Snake,” opens with a long, contemplative guitar riff before being tossed into a rhythmic cage for the song’s duration, “Heart Like A Wheel” features a unique, minor progression which resolves to a more traditional key before Church starts singing, and this happens far more than it should across the entire rest of this project. Plenty of modern country artists, Sturgill Simpson being perhaps the best known, toy with creative and even orchestral introductions, but when this is done, it needs to be further developed throughout the song. Instead, Church teases with a fun idea and expects credit for four bars of it.

   Eric Church isn’t the best artist in country today by any means, but he’s certainly one of the better voices receiving mainstream radio play. On top this, he’s still showing clear signs of growth, now seven releases into his career. Desperate Man is a huge improvement on its predecessor, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, which I worry may hindered by his need to keep his work accessible to larger crowds.

   Put simply, Desperate Man gives something to enjoy on every track, and yet leaves much to be desired just as often.

5/10

HEAR DROWNING MAN: https://open.spotify.com/album/5TjDN2hfsgNWVtP8Ew56Xx

Loretta Lynn Pairs with John Carter Cash For Powerful Album with Legacy Records

Wouldn’t It Be Great avoids the trappings of sentimentality, for the most part, and instead presents the image of an icon continuing to master her craft.

     Loretta Lynn is a legend at a caliber that very few ever reach. She’s been a member of the Grand ‘Ole Opry for more than 50 years, featured in the County Music Hall of Fame, won four Grammys, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013. After a studio career that spans 41 albums and 55 years, Lynn is now reaching the twilight of her career and she’s doing so with grace.

   Her 2017 album, Full Circle was nominated for the Best Country Album award at the 59th Grammy awards, and having signed with Legacy Records, she doesn’t seem to be done yet. This is especially the case due to the recent resurgence of the outlaw and traditional country styles. Wouldn’t It Be Great released earlier this week and it is yet another great addition to her catalog.

   Lynn’s voice on this record is especially impressive, as she still sounds fantastic after her very long career. This is especially true on her higher, more open notes in tracks like “I’m Dying for Someone to Live For,” or the opening title track. She sings with a power and control that just doesn’t exist in modern country music.

   This is made all the more impressive by the fantastic instrumentation on this album, which is easily it’s best quality. Sam Bush’s fiddle on “Another Bridge to Burn,” is just pure bluegrass and the electric guitars on “Don’t Come Home from Drinkin’” set the perfect tone for such a classic of country music. The bedrock to all of this is, of course, Mike Bub on the upright bass who holds down every song with an active, leading bass line. This instrumentation, more so than anything else, is what sets Wouldn’t It Be Great apart form other recent releases from older country icons.

   This large band and wide pallet is masterfully helmed by John Carter Cash on production. The only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, John is quickly becoming one of the best producers in country music with his simple but elegant style. His stereo imaging gives tracks like “Lulie Vars,” or “These ‘Ole Blues,” a very organic feel and he has a good ear for which instruments need to take center stage.

   While the album carries plenty of crooning ballads, it is at its best when its fun. Listen to songs like “Ruby’s Stool,” or my personal favorite, “Ain’t No Time to Go,” which take almost an Irish slant with the loud fiddle, mandolin swells, and excellent banjo work by Larry Perkins. These tracks are best described as foot-tappers, and they’re some of the funnest country songs of the year.

   Lyrically, the album is a bit of a mixed bag. “My Angel Mother,” is a moving and well crafted tribute and “The Big Man,” is a clinic in how to write religious music. On the other hand, “God Makes No Mistakes,” is a good example of how not to write religious music as it comes off as repetitive and answers few of the questions it poses and may be the weakest song in the track list. In addition, “Darkest Days,” one of Lynn’s oldest songs, repurposed for this project, shows it’s age a bit in it’s simple writing and rhyme scheme.

   Many of the tracks on this album are older Loretta Lynn songs which she’s re-recorded for this album, and most of them gain something from the update. If one doesn’t, it would likely be the closer, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” This is, of course, one of the most iconic songs in the country cannon, but nothing is improved by recording it again, especially since it was recorded as recent as 2012 before this.

   On the other end of the album, the opener and title track is easily the highlight of this project. Loretta’s vocal is gentle but powerful, Randy Scruggs’ acoustic guitar lays an excellent bedding, and the lyrics are very well written, dealing with a woman asking her alcoholic husband to “throw the ‘ole glass crutch away.”

   Loretta Lynn is one of the all time greats and her pairing with the John Carter Cash is more than fitting. The vocals are excellent, the instrumental pallet is broad and exciting, and Loretta Lynn commands respect in a way that few artists ever are able to.

   Wouldn’t It Be Great avoids the trappings of sentimentality, for the most part, and instead presents the image of an icon continuing to master her craft.

8/10

HEAR WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT: https://open.spotify.com/album/4Uk33jRr1FKDvYBDy8J3Xr