A week into the struggle to defend the working families of Wisconsin from the assault on their rights by Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies, a group of rockers from around the country showed up to sing in solidarity with the tens of thousands of Wisconsinites who had gathered outside the Capitol. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Wayne Kramer from the MC5, Mike McColgan from the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs, and a band of young musicians packed the stage at the State Street entrance to the great building on a February day when it was so cold that they joked about trying to play guitars with frozen fingers.
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Yet they played their way through a rousing array of labor and protest music.
The rockers finished with a song that everyone knew: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Guthrie, a union man who placed his voice in the service of many a strike during the rabble-rousing years of the 1930s and 1940s, wrote some of America’s finest labor songs. But “This Land Is Your Land” struck a deeper note. It was not just about the dignity of work. It was about the dignity of Americans and their right to expect more from their country than the same poverty, discrimination and neglect that he associated with the totalitarian states of Europe and the colonies of Africa and southern Asia.
“This Land Is Your Land” has become a sort of people’s national anthem. In Wisconsin this year, it has been restored to its radical roots, often with the “lost verses” that Guthrie used to sing resurrected.
The original manuscript was a call to action for economic and social justice:
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.
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?
Woody Guthrie died too young, at age 55. If he were living, he would turn 99 on July 14.
As it happens, his son, Arlo, a great songwriter and singer in his own right, will celebrate in Madison on the 14th. He will be at the historic Barrymore Theater, singing his own songs and some of his father’s.
Arlo Guthrie will support the labor struggle in Wisconsin as his father did so many times during the good fights that gave rise to the modern labor movement: by donating his entire fee to the We Are Wisconsin Worker’s Emergency Rights Fund — a network of religious leaders, community groups, labor union members, student groups and others who oppose the current state budget, which harms Wisconsin families.
There is something so very right—in a historic sense and a contemporary sense—about a Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land,” in all its glory, in Madison, Wisconsin, on the night of Woody’s 99th birthday.