On January 18, 2009, two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration, close to half a million people gathered for a free concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They were sung to and spoken at by a handful of musical artists, actors, politicians, and other prominent figures, including the President Elect and the illustrious Bono. Near the end of the concert, Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen led the crowd in a rendition of that old patriotic chestnut “This Land Is Your Land.” Naturally, everyone sang along, just as people have in countless classrooms, school pageants, political conventions, and rallies since Woody Guthrie’s most famous song entered the national consciousness in the 1960s.
Who knows what was going through Pete Seeger’s mind at that moment? There he was: the musical highlight of this state-sponsored spectacle, framed by the stars and stripes, and singing what might as well be the unofficial national anthem of the United States. A surprising image, considering that the United States once declared Seeger a dangerous subversive, hauled him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and sentenced him to ten years in prison for courageously sticking to his First Amendment guns. The sentence was overturned in 1962 but Seeger was blacklisted from major media outlets, and it took years for the stigma to fade—to the extent that it ever did.
And yet, by 2009, Seeger was apparently considered normalized (or perhaps domesticated) enough by elite opinion to be featured at the official inauguration concert. But Seeger had a trick up his sleeve that day. After singing their familiar way from “the ribbon of highway” to “the Gulf Stream waters,” the trio launched into three relatively unknown (and often censored) verses, with Seeger reciting each line loud and clear, just before the others chimed in. They sang about hungry people huddled outside the relief office; they attacked the very concept of private property; they set out on the “freedom highway,” and defied anyone to stop them. In other words, they seized upon the radical message of “This Land Is Your Land” and rehabilitated it in front of what was probably the largest single audience the song has ever had. [To read more please click here.]