The “Dust Bowl Troubadour” was born more than a century ago this week: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known simply as Woody Guthrie. His songs are legion, his prickly reputation incomparable, and his influence as far reaching as any American musician who has ever lived.
My favorite Woody Guthrie song, aside from the hilarious “There’ll Be No Church Tonight,” is his most well known tune, “This Land Is Your Land.” We usually only sing the first verse: “This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York Island. From the Red Wood forests, to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.”
It’s a tune that sounds so patriotic and uplifting, but that really wasn’t Woody’s intent when he wrote the piece. It was, as were so many of his songs, a protest. As the United States was finally emerging from the Great Depression, Guthrie had apparently had a belly full of Kate Smith bellowing out “God Bless America” on the radio all the time. So he wrote this song, originally entitled, “God Blessed America for Me,” as his response.
He had seen a half-million of his fellow Oklahomans, Arkansans, and other Dust Bowl refugees suddenly impoverished, forced to hit the road, and struggle to find work, food, and sustenance for their families. These were the down-on-their-luck, hard-working people that Guthrie was championing with his anthem.
One of the “forgotten” verses of the song is the one I enjoy the most. Woody wrote, as he crossed this great land, “There was a high wall, that tried to stop me. A sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me.”
For years I have applied Woody’s words to the attitude, nature, and role of the church. Many a congregation might as well have a “Private Property” or “Keep Out” sign painted on the front door of their sanctuary. This applies to more than the building or the land – though many guests who have innocently sat in a longtime member’s established church pew, learn quickly that ownership seems to extend to the furniture.
No, they feel they “own” faith, even God. Consequently, they act as gatekeepers and border guards, defenders of the wall. With crossed arms, suspicious glances, pointing fingers, and armed with theological weapons, they determine who “gets in” and those who are left out. Yet, “this land was made for you and me.”
What land? It’s not a physical country. It’s the space known as the Kingdom of God; it is God’s land, which encompasses and stretches far beyond individual churches, synagogues, mosques, or artificial checkpoints.
This Kingdom has no “Keep Out” signs, not any put there by people, anyway. It is meant for all – “all who believe and accept him.” So happy birthday, Woody. Thank you for the years of memories and music. And thanks for reminding us where we all belong.