Listen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.
Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.
When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”.
Just because this version of the song makes you shake your rump a bit more than Guthrie’s original take, it doesn’t mean that this song isn’t just as political. It remains to be a call to remember that those who live in a country are the ones who should steer its destiny, or at least have their voices heard no matter where they live, what they look like, or who they are. In this version, that idea is expressed as coming from real experience, translated through the performance of a singer who had seen a thing or two herself.
Before she became a full-time professional singer and musician, Sharon Jones worked a number of day jobs. One was as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. There, she was privy to the dark side American life, in a nation that continues to have an incarceration rate that rivals the populations of some countries. Further to that because of her own background and racial experience, the fact that a large proportion of the imprisoned population in the United States is made up of black and poor people could not have been lost on her. All of this coupled with the grim political climate of the mid-2000s had to have been an engine to drive the decision to include this song on the record, positioned as a lament more so than an anthem.
There is a mournful cry of protest heard here that echos down the decades about how the promises a nation makes to its citizens are routinely broken. What also plays into this take on the song is that the band chose to perform the original 1940 version of Guthrie’s song, which includes the later-redacted verses mentioned earlier that would have meant all kinds of trouble for the songwriter and his family by the McCarthy era:
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me/A sign was painted said: Private Property/But on the back side it didn’t say nothing/must be that side was made for you and me
“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…”
In addition to that, Jones makes sure to include her own contribution by naming cities, states, and neighbourhoods with large black populations that have been left out of the portrait of the nation; Mississippi, Georgia, Philadelphia, Houston, and beyond. This is a call for inclusion as this song as a whole has always been. It’s a call for representation and for a claim on promises made about freedom and about a home to call one’s own without fear of prejudice, imprisonment, deportation, or death.
In November last year, we lost Sharon Jones after her battle pancreatic cancer, a condition she fought tooth and nail before a stroke finally claimed her. And today, I find myself in an era where tomorrow on January 20, 2017, the United States will swear in Donald J. Trump as their actual president, a man who is a documented racist, sexist, cheat, and serial liar. This is a man who Woody Guthrie himself would have opposed since he opposed Trump, Sr. after being one of his tenants! Sharon Jones surely did oppose Trump almost to her last breath.
It is during these strange and disturbing times when “This Land Is Your Land” reminds us in part of how easily a nation can drift away from its promises to its citizens and to those who seek refuge in a land of the free to make a home for brave peoples of all kinds. Yet it also reminds us of what a nation is supposed to be; a place for diverse communities to come together and truly build a country that benefits everyone, not just those with the right profile and the means.
While you contemplate what the future will bring Good People, why not check out sharonjonesandthedapkings.com while you’re at it?