“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?”

Woody Guthrie

Hats off to the BBC for its Good Friday tribute to Woody Guthrie on BBC4! This gravelly folk singer, born and raised in dustbowl America, preceded 1960s’ legends such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez by 30 years; and yet it was his celebration of America, “This land is my land, this land is your land”, which was a centre point of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008.

Listeners will be aware that Share Radio’s sister channel, Share Music, is filled with a great collection of instrumental folk music, but please read on as this week we draw out some of the key points from Woody Guthrie’s story to show how effective folk balladeers can be in changing the world.

Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 in Oklahoma. It was a time when wealth polarisation, driven by early and vibrant American capitalism, and racial segregation were very much in evidence. The dustbowl agricultural disaster of the 1920s drove Woody, together with hundreds of thousands of others, to migrate across America to the West Coast.

He was already becoming established as a folk singer, and soon found himself featuring on a weekly Los Angeles radio show, singing about the iniquities of the hunger and unemployment that he’d already experienced. However he’d not at that time learned about the iniquities of racial discrimination, and his first major lesson came as a result of a listener writing into the station to complain of the racial stereotyping of his songs, and his attitudes towards African Americans. This clearly pulled him up sharply and, from that point onwards, he wrote and sang of integration and fair treatment for all. When America elected its first black president, it was therefore fitting that his call for social justice should be included at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

At Share Radio we don’t get much feedback from listeners and readers, but occasionally an email arrives to deliver such a challenge. I received one last week, on our position over Brexit. As with Woody Guthrie, it made me think seriously about whether our stance was correct. I have concluded that it is, but would welcome the opportunity to publish and comment on such listener feedback. It’s one of the things to respect about George Osborne, in his role as editor of the London Evening Standard: he’ll not only state his views, but also be happy to respond personally and publicly to readers’ letters.

Woody later moved to New York, married and had a family: including Nora and Arlo, both of  whom appeared in the BBC4 programme. Those of my vintage will recall Arlo’s 18 minute legendary protest about the Vietnam draft in his song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. The family moved to Coney Island where they lived in a block called Beach Haven, and the programme recounted how their landlord rejected black applicants from renting properties there. That landlord was none other than Donald Trump’s father.

Woody remained a rebel throughout the 1940s, joining the Merchant Marine in his own attempt to avoid the draft. However in the early 50s, at the age of just 40, he was struck by Huntington’s disease and died at the age of just 55, just as the baby boomers’ protesters and balladeers were getting underway.

It’s an extraordinary story of a man well before his time but, in particular, it shows how artists, and particularly folk balladeers, can literally change the world.

The iniquities of racial discrimination and segregation are now well understood and legislated for, although still very much in evidence. However the iniquities of wealth polarisation are still very much with us. They’re the things that have driven the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the wave of populism and far-right support across the world. They result in food banks and much shorter life expectancy, and forced migration just as much as in Woody Guthrie’s day.

We now understand that communism is not the route by which they are solved. Levelling down simply causes those with wealth to move overseas, and creates a massive burden of government welfare which drives national debt to unsustainable levels. It offers no opportunity or hope to those determined to make a better life. Communism is now seen for what it is: a dead end.

But wealth polarisation is not the only way of doing capitalism: widespread individual participation in ownership, together with the sense of responsibility that comes from that experience, can be achieved for the many, not just the few. It’s achieved by setting fiscal and economic conditions which foster individual ownership on a broad scale, and by empowering the disadvantaged young.

So we could do with a new genre of folk balladeers like Woody Guthrie in order to draw attention again to the iniquities of modern wealth polarisation, and to sing the benefits of giving people control over their lives.

When “This land is your land …”was sung at Barack Obama’s inauguration, it included all six verses, including the two with controversial pictures of so much that was wrong with America:

“This land is your land, and 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
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.

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

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, it said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing —
This land 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
This land was made for you and me.

“When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.”

Much of these are still in need of answers today, and egalitarian capitalism is what can provide the solutions.


Gavin Oldham

Share Radio