Today, the news announced that we will have a new president. Just like most of you, I have friends and family who stand on both sides of the aisle. Some are staunch in their viewpoints and others are humble and proceed with mercy and grace. All are dead-set on doing what they believe is valuable for the nation. They love America. Everybody loves America, right? At least the notion of America that is. Virtuous living, opportunity to all, great adventure, and the love of neighbor – these are the ideas that are worth the hype. Unfortunately, these notions are merely that. America, at its core, is a belief system. The Declaration of Independence declares: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If you look closely, the turn of phrase “we hold” is eloquently referring to faith. The declaration made by this nation’s founders was that the truths described within were true for all and therefore “unalienable” meaning, as Merriam-Webster defines, “impossible to take away or give up.” It’s a life-changing statement but as a statement alone it’s useless. Faith without action is dead. This country is at its best when folks not only have faith but actively work it out in their lives for the benefit of their fellow man.
Written by the fabled Woodie Guthrie in 1940, “This Land is Your Land” was a from the hip response to Irvin Berlin’s white-washed and polished classic tune “God Bless America”. Guthrie thought Berlin’s tune was grossly jingoistic. Don’t worry friends, I learned this word today as well. Kudos to all you brainiacs with your big vocabs! As for the rest of us, jingoistic basically means taking pride in something that you’ve been afforded to the corrupted point that you begin taunting those to whom it hasn’t. To use playground vernacular, it’s a big ole “na-na na-na boo boo”! Well, Guthrie wasn’t having it. Raised in a small town in Oklahoma, his family was thriving until they were hit hard in the 30s when the oil economy seemingly tanked sending his family into a downward spiral. They subsequently moved to Texas where his mother was committed to a mental institution for a undiagnosed nervous condition. Woodie had seen hard times and seemed to be taken back by the lack of reality presented in Berlin’s version of the nation. Guthrie was a realist so the glossed-over nationality of “God Bless America” put him off to say the least. In fact, he originally penned the title as “God Blessed America For Me”. Ultimately, he changed it to the now classic “This Land is Your Land” but his original sentiment remained. I have no doubt in my mind that Woodie Guthrie wholeheartedly agreed with the Declaration yet didn’t believe that everyone was keeping the faith.
Cut to last Thursday 2020. The Avett Brothers, undoubtedly, seeing that much of America was trading in national pride for nationalism, released their version of the classic. Unlike Guthrie’s sarcastic gut reaction to “God Bless America”, the Avetts’ take seems to be a call to reunite. Pure in purpose. The accompanying video, showcases mostly faces void of any tangible emotion, including the Brothers themselves. It’s the intangible gleam in their eyes which tells the tale. The children appear to be blissfully ignorant yet the adults seem stoic. Under normal circumstances my cynical mind would call marginalized people in rural landscapes running in slow motion a trope but in the case of an anthem I’ll allow it. Additionally, the use of black and white film is an ironic touch. The divisiveness the country is facing, both internationally and within its own borders, is highly complex, far from the black and white depicted in the music’s cinematography. Quite possibly, the director, Samuel Bayer, was subtly declaring that it ought to be.
As always, though, Seth and Scott’s voices are transformative. Their harmony is an instant invitation to everyone to sing along which fulfills the mission of its melodic structure. The simplicity of the tune is capitalized on by one guitar and one banjo. It’s a rich sound that only skilled roots musicians could pull off. Much like their activist predecessors in Seeger, Springsteen and Dylan, these two brothers are an American treasure so it’s not a stretch to think that an anthem like this might have the power to reunite America in such times as these. This eighty year old classic feels fresh and new. Great songs simply don’t die. Thank you for retelling the truth fellas. I have faith that America is listening.