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Opinion

Remember Woody Guthrie's original lyrics, not what you learned in school

Woody Guthrie plays his guitar and sings in

Woody Guthrie plays his guitar and sings in this undated photo Photo Credit: AP, File

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old today, July 14. That’s a fact likely to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and nothing at all to a whole bunch of folks. But Woody Guthrie led me to my first revelation about how much school was about conformity and indoctrination, and how little it was about true knowledge, and real learning.

Guthrie was a folk singer and a communist, or at least a hanger-on of communists. A native of Oklahoma, he wandered the nation, particularly during the Great Depression, and wrote about what he saw.

Most famously, he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” and we all learned to sing it. Well, some of it.

The song I was taught, and in my memory this happened on practically the first day of school, was about how shockingly awesome America is.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

It’s a nice enough song, and I doubt I had any issue with it in first grade, but some years later, and by this time I was likely already sneaking smokes and beers, and not paying attention in class and generally learning to be the me I would be from the of 13 until, oh, about 33, I found out there were two more verses in Guthrie’s original song.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing."
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side 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?

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.

Now understand, I was kind of a punk, but I was no hippie. If anything, I was kind of an Ayn Rand punk at that age. So it wasn’t some extraordinary truth in Guthrie’s left-behind sentiment that struck me, it was simply the fact that it was left behind.

Not by the teachers, who knew nothing of such things, or the principal, who wouldn’t have known a communist if one twisted his nose, but by whoever wrote the music book.

And I thought I might want to be a writer, and have my words taught in schools, and it had never occurred to me how they might be twisted. How the whole establishment might be twisted.

To change a man’s art to indoctrinate children into a pro-society point of view is a terrible thing. It’s a start toward indicting that society as not being worthy of support.

Guthrie was born with a hereditary illness called Huntington’s Disease, which killed his mother and, at the age of 55, killed him. It also drove both of them insane before it carried them off.

Today he is mostly remembered for being the father of Arlo Guthrie, also a folk musician, who wrote “Alice’s Restaurant,” and for his own “This Land is Your Land.”

And I thought it would be nice if today we remembered him for the song he actually wrote, not the one they taught us.

Pictured above: Woody Guthrie plays his guitar and sings.

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