I’m Bill Moyers. And welcome to BillMoyers.com. Join us over the next few weeks, because on the air and on this website, we’ll be talking a lot about “winner-take-all” politics and how economic inequality – that vast gap between the top and everyone else – is not the result of market forces. It has been deliberately, politically engineered - made to happen. But first, as they used to say on the radio, a musical interlude.
The traveling medicine show known as the race for the Republican presidential nomination moves on. And I’m keeping my eyes for the moment on some big news from the great state of Oklahoma. I was born there, before my mother and father smuggled me across the border to Texas, and so was the great American folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose l00th birthday we’ll be celebrating later this year.
Out of your dust bowl, and westward we role. And your desert was…
Woody Guthrie saw the ravages of the Dust Bowl and the Depression firsthand; his own family came unraveled in the worst hard times. And he wrote tough yet lyrical songs about the men and women who struggled to survive, enduring the indignity of living life at the bone, with nothing to eat and no place to sleep. He traveled from town to town, hitchhiking and stealing rides in railroad boxcars, singing his songs for spare change or a ham sandwich. What professional success he had during his own lifetime, singing in concerts and on the radio, was often undone by politics and that restless urge to keep moving on. You can hear it in his most popular songs. “So long, it’s been good to know you,” he sang, and off he would go.
…are blowing me home. I’ve got to be rolling along.
What he wrote and sang about caused the oil potentates and preachers who ran Oklahoma to consider him radical and disreputable. For many years he was the state’s prodigal son, but times change, and that’s the big news. Woody Guthrie has been rediscovered.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation has bought Guthrie’s archives – his manuscripts, letters and journals. And a center is being built in Tulsa that will make them available to scholars and visitors from all over the world.
Among its treasures is the original, handwritten copy of this song, Woody Guthrie’s most famous, This Land Is Your Land.
This land is your land. This land is my land. From California…
Time and again, Guthrie sang this American folk song celebrating the beauty of the country he traveled across: its endless skyways and golden valleys, the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts. Yet his eye was clear, unclouded, and unobstructed by sentimentality – for he also wrote in its lyrics:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
A mighty good question. The biggest domestic story of our time is the collapse of the middle class, a sharp increase in the poor, and the huge transfer of wealth to the already rich. In an era of gross inequality there’s both irony and relevance in Woody Guthrie’s song. That ribbon of highway he made famous? It’s faded and fraying in disrepair, the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, once one of our glories, is now a shambles because fixing them would require spending money, raising taxes, and pulling together.
This land is mostly owned not by you and me but by the winner-take-all superrich who have bought up open spaces, built mega-mansions, turned vast acres into private vistas, and distanced themselves as far as they can from the common lot of working people – the people Woody wrote and sang about.
But maybe – just maybe – the news that Woody Guthrie, once a pariah in his home state, has become a local hero is the harbinger of things to come, and that all the people who still believe this land is our land will begin to take it back.
I’m Bill Moyers. Join me online and on air at Moyers & Company. Check your local listings.