Political Songs | This Land Is Your Land – Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

Many artists have recorded Woody Guthrie’s communist response to God Bless America, but Sharon Jones’ reimagining of the song highlights a deeply unequal society in Trump’s America.

Lefty folk singers Des and Dawn Lindberg were lucky the apartheid censors weren’t the sharpest pencils in the drawer. In 1967, the Joburg duo’s debut album, Folk on Trek, was banned on the grounds of “obscenity”. This was because the apartheid government deemed the lyrics to nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb dubious and because they covered the Negro spiritual Dese Bones Gonna Rise Again

Towards the end of the album, a live recording of a concert at the Wits Great Hall, lurked a much greater “danger” to the white racist republic. It came in the form of the communist American folkie Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, albeit South Africanised with local landmarks on this popular, widely covered and interpreted road trip of a song, by then already 37 years old. 

We all know how any “commie” inferences – real and most often imagined – made the apartheid rulers see … erm, red. If the authorities had known about the “rooi gevaar” roots of the song, it would undoubtedly have attracted more than just the censors’ attention. The Security Branch would have ensured that the subversive Lindbergs landed up in prison, and for a very long time.

The pair appealed in court to have the ban on Folk on Trek lifted, but lost the case. All copies of the album were ordered to be destroyed although some fans hid theirs and, as a result, some copies survived.

Interestingly, on the album’s sleeve notes, the lyrics are, no doubt strategically, quoted incorrectly. Written as “This land is my land, this land is your land. From the great Limpopo to Marion Island”, the song itself refers to Robben Island, where many of South Africa’s liberation movement leaders were incarcerated at the time.

 Adaptation rooted in Marxism

The Lindberg adaption isn’t the only version of This Land Is Your Land. Several popular artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg have recorded their own versions. The song has been interpreted in a range of languages, including Welsh, Swedish, Turkish, Catalan and even Esperanto, as well as across genres from country to reggae, soul, folk and hardcore punk.

An American singer-songwriter, social commentator, chronicler and champion of the working class, Guthrie – who died in 1967 – wrote the lyrics for This Land Is Your Land in February 1940 and used a 1930 gospel recording by The Carter Family called When the World’s On Fire for its melody. A gatvol Guthrie wrote the song in response to Irving Berlin’s superpatriotic God Bless America, sung by Kate Smith, that was on high rotation on the radio in the late 1930s. 

Described as a Marxist reply to God Bless America, Guthrie wrote it after an extensive, tough road trip during the Depression-torn 1930s, from Texas to Los Angeles and all around the American West. As author David Cantwell wrote for online magazine Slate

“What he’d seen during his hard travelin’ – prejudice and hatred and violence, crowded labour camps, empty stomachs and hungry eyes – led him to conclude that heavenly endorsement was the last thing America had coming.”

A disappeared politics

Guthrie recorded it in 1944, but it was only released by Folkways Recordings in 1951. Two verses, the fourth and sixth, disappeared from the version that evolved into a singalong paean to American patriotism, with right-wing American presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W Bush using it in their respective campaigns.

Verse four, which was on Guthrie’s original recording, unambiguously espoused socialism:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
The sign was painted, said “Private Property”
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me

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The sixth verse, scribbled on a piece of paper and now in the possession of the Guthrie Archives, highlighted the dire consequences of capitalism that Guthrie witnessed first-hand:

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 God blessed America for me

It wasn’t published until 1997. His daughter, Nora, told folklorist Nick Spitzer that she has an idea why the sixth verse wasn’t recorded at the 1944 session, and why the “private property” verse that was recorded was not issued. 

“This is the early 1950s, and [United States senator Joseph] McCarthy’s out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material,” she told him.

In his article for US public radio network NPR, Spitzer noted that the full “red” version was “sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America.”

Slow, dark, serious

A personal favourite version of This Land Is Your Land is by working-class soul singer Sharon Jones, which was recorded with her backing band the Dap-Kings and released in 2004. 

The phenomenal Jones only had her debut album released at the age of 40, after having worked as a prison officer, an armoured car guard for a bank, a sanitation officer and a wedding singer. 

“Until the 1990s, major labels were looking for a certain look,” she told Mother Jones magazine. “This Sony guy told me I was ‘too black, too fat, too short and too old’. Told me to go and bleach my skin. Told me to step in the background and just stay back. I had the voice, but I didn’t have the looks.”

She proved him wrong. Jones’ six albums, released before she died from pancreatic cancer in 2016, are some of the finest soul funk ever put on vinyl.

The Jones version is slower, darker and more serious. It includes all the verses and gets Guthrie’s intention of putting the spotlight on a deeply unequal society across in a much clearer way.

An urgent demand

In 2016, her close friend and Dap-Kings bandleader Gabriel Roth wrote a touching tribute after Jones died. It was just as Donald Trump was becoming president of the US. 

“Using a dark reharmonisation of Yankee Doodle Dandy as an intro, the Dap-Kings rearranged This Land as a rough bluesy march, setting the tone for Sharon to tear into the lyrics of the song with the fiery gusto of a revolutionary,” wrote Roth.

“However, it was the inclusion of Guthrie’s rarely heard original verses that really enabled Sharon to reclaim the song as an urgent and unambiguous demand for equality and human dignity in a nation rife with social injustice and patriotic hypocrisy.

“Today, as we inaugurate a rapacious billionaire to the highest office in the land, those original verses resonate with us as loudly as the day they were written.”

This Land Is Your Land remains an apt soundtrack for today as Trump rages against progressive women, telling them to go back to their country, even though this land is their land, too.

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