Bernie Sanders – This Land Is Your Land

Bernie Sanders is a Senator from Vermont. He’s running for President of the USA for 2016. Known as a passionate social justice advocate, Bernie Sanders was apparently at Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, back in 1963.

Fast forward about 25 years, to Sanders doing an album of folk songs. Well, he doesn’t sing, but speechifies the lyrics of this most famous Woody Guthrie anthem. Maybe Sanders was paying homage to William Shatner’s cover of Mr. Tambourine Man.

Do you feel these recordings hurt or assist Sander’s effort to win the candidacy of the Democrats for the next election?

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Jean Ritchie – Black Waters

Jean Ritchie is considered the “mother of folk music.” From Kentucky, she has an amazing life story (14 siblings in a one-room Kentucky home, eventually singing with other folk heroes such as Woody Guthrie, obtaining a university education and becoming a folk song historian…).

Black Waters is a poetic, early environmental song protesting strip mining, from the 1950s. Ritchie fantasizes about buying out the mining company to save the land where she was born.

Woody Guthrie – Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)

A California plane crash in 1948 killed a number of migrant workers seeking to return to Mexico after a term of seasonal labour. Guthrie felt that their tragic deaths should have been better honoured, such as by some media reports that failed to identify the victims by name. The implication is that Mexicans were not considered equal to other Americans. A memorial was finally erected in tribute, in 2013.

Apparently, Woody only spoke the words, and music was added much later by others. Here is Woody’s son, Arlo, singing the song for us:

 

Woody Guthrie – I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore

Woody Guthrie, from 1940, describes what it’s like to be a poor worker trying to make their way in life, while meanwhile others get rich and richer. This classic song about income inequality has powerful lyrics that are resentful of capitalist icons such as bankers, and reverential toward workers, such as farmers and miners. Guthrie suggests poor people, with no home in this world, wait patiently for respite in the next, presumably heaven. While the song certainly has socialist overtones of animosity toward capitalists, it thus does not go as far as recommending a worker’s revolution that would push it into Marxist and communist territory. Still, perhaps you will find the song is too passive for essentially accepting the lot in life for those that have less.

Phil Ochs – Power And Glory

Things could be better, folkie Phil Ochs notes in this 1964 protest song. After citing what’s great about the USA, he lets us know that not all are free if poor, and that some detract from the majesty of the land by spreading their fear, hate and even treason.

Now, let’s acknowledge from the lyrics that some are padlocked in prison for committing crimes against others, but the rest of the song is a Woody Guthrie-styled critique of the American dream. The equality of opportunity for all to succeed may be hampered through the actions of others. We can note the singer still loves his country and finds within it the structure for improvement and betterment. Sadly, Ochs took his own life in 1976.

Midnight Oil – Blue Sky Mine

With the Keystone Pipeline in the US and the Northern Gateway/Enbridge Pipeline in Canada, both making many headlines in both countries, let’s turn back to Aussie political rockers Midnight Oil.

Protest songs about mines are common folk tune subjects, going back at least to Woody Guthrie.

This 1990 song is actually about asbestos mining. Asbestos is cancer-causing, and it rankles many that it is still exported in Canada. There is even a town in the province of Quebec named Asbestos, where is also located one of the world’s largest asbestos mines. Political debate frequently comes down to banning the extrication and exportation of this blue substance, but the trade off of foregoing the economic value of it has typically trumped such a decision.

The balance between jobs and health, or jobs and the environment, or jobs and safety or… and so on… is a routine political challenge.

Pete Seeger – Little Boxes

You might know this 1963 song as the original opening music to the television program, Weeds, before protagonist Nancy Botwin literally burned down the suburbia criticized by the tune.

Given that so many people aspire to a detached home in a nice neighbourhood, the brief song is somewhat sanctimonious. Inside those copycat homes can still be vibrant families making contributions to their country. But the song does draw attention to the conformity wrought by urban planning and can remind us of the importance of not following the crowd. Going into business for martini lunches does not have to be the American dream, nor does a rambling folkster life in the vein of Seeger or Woody Guthrie cut it for others.

The dominant paradigm today in city planning is “mixed use” and density,” a shift away from the American Beauty-movie conception of suburbia which only hides so many problems; to combine residential living with businesses: to live on one floor, with a coffee shop and office space in the same building. The thought behind this also seeks to rectify the transportation needs of suburban commutes to downtowns, in the name of the environment. In short, Seeger’s song (actually, written by Malvina Reynolds), has been influential.

Now in his 90s, folkie Seeger continues his activism, at Occupy Movement marches. In decades past he has appeared before the House Un-american Activities Committee, opposed the Vietnam War, helped clean up the Hudson River… the list goes on. A self-described communist once called “Stalin’s Songbird,” in fact he adopts the argument that the atrocities of the Soviet Union were not about the ideology, as it was improperly applied.

Also by Seeger reviewed here: Where Have All The Flowers Gone