Woody Guthrie and the Magic Word

Posted 11/12/20

Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” is recognizable to millions by the chorus:

This land was made for you and me.

This folk classic celebrates the gift of America. The verses …

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Woody Guthrie and the Magic Word

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Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” is recognizable to millions by the chorus:

This land was made for you and me.

This folk classic celebrates the gift of America. The verses are filled with the beauty of the country and a love for its best ideals. The song also insists on inclusion — you and me. “And” is the magic word.

Our country has had two political parties from its inception, and citizens have been bitterly divided in the past. This is especially true today after our most recent presidential election. The election map shows the geographical splits. Blue America and Red America are further divided over cultural, racial and socio-economic differences. The problem is not that these differences exist but that too many people are unwilling to work to overcome them.

We settle for you or me.

For many of us, the challenge is more than the fact that we do not understand the other side. We do not wish to learn about those folks because we do not trust them.

Therefore, we need a focus that can unite us — help us to see our country as both/and, not either/or. Guthrie offered such words.

Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century. He experienced firsthand the poverty of the Dust Bowl era as well as the Great Depression. As a child, he also suffered the personal tragedies of the loss of his home in a fire and the death of his mother.

These experiences shaped Guthrie’s vision of America as much as the natural beauty of the environment. He identified with people who were hungry, poor and downtrodden. While “This Land Is Your Land” is best known by its chorus, a verse includes these lines: In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, by the relief office I seen my people.

Notice how Guthrie stressed that the people in need were “my people.” He not only cared for them, he identified with them. This calls to mind another man who roamed and rambled even longer ago:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those among you, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).

This is one of the more famous teachings of Jesus. Yet, the mandate to care for those in need is by no means limited to Christianity. At a time when millions of Americans suffer from the great recession caused by the coronavirus, the need is now. Service to others could unite us across our religious differences as well as our politics. People of good faith could reach out in kindness, care and what the New Testament terms “brotherly love” (philos).

My 5-year-old son thinks his big brother hung the moon and stars. He wants to do everything like his hero. Recently, his big brother decided to teach him how to read. The first lesson involved a certain conjunction. I heard them reading together on the couch, the older one pausing when he reached that magic word in the text so that the younger could chime in: “And … and … and …” If we would learn to work together, that one-word chorus could unite our country.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church and author of Gently Between the Words: Essays and Poems. He is currently working from home with his wife and three children.


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