Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Woody's song makes it to the Obama White House

by Thomas Dimopoulos

He sat in a room in a Manhattan boarding house on a cold February day in 1940, irritated by the relentless wail of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."

The monotony of the song being played over and over again on the radio drove him to put his own words to paper -- in protest of the song that he heard that day.

Two weeks ago, and more than 40 years after the man's death, his friend and former bandmate, Pete Seeger, stood in the shadow of a 19-foot high marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. He turned and faced the newly-elected president of the United States, and with banjo in hand, he sang Woody Guthrie's song.

"Think about 55 or 60 years ago. If they sang that in a public place, they probably would have been hauled in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities," said 65-year-old Saratoga Springs musician Peter Davis. "We've come a long way since then."

The song, "This Land Is Your Land," has been recited by generations of schoolchildren. Rarely has it been sung in its original version, as it was on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration by the trio of Pete Seeger, Seeger's grandson, Tao, and Bruce Springsteen.

That it was performed with the inclusion of its more controversial verses in front of a new president who carries the weight of the world's optimism on his shoulders, is as good a sign as any that, just maybe, this is the dawning of a new age.

"What was thought radical during the McCarthy era is now somewhat mainstream," said Davis, recalling the seldom-sung song verses that target barrier walls and warning signs as obstacles to overcome.

"There are some significant lines in those (seldom sung) verses," Davis said. "Of course, Woody was operating during the depression, which is parallel to what is happening now."

Davis' lifelong affiliation with Pete Seeger began in post-World War II New York City, when his parents took him along to a concert where he watched Seeger perform with his band, The Weavers, at Carnegie Hall. A few years later, Seeger made visits to Davis' high school to talk about music with students. They later re-connected in Washington D.C. in 1962, after Davis helped organize a college student march for peace to the White House. It was a bitter cold day, and President John Kennedy sent out hot coffee to the protesters to help keep them warm, Davis remembered.

These days, Davis remains active on the regional folk music scene. In addition to performing with Seeger, he reckons he plays more than 200 shows a year with a half-dozen bands, as well as managing his duties as program director of the annual Dance Flurry in Saratoga Springs.

He spent his college years in the optimism that surrounded President Kennedy and said the hope and promise is also there with Obama, although the challenges are many. Given the new president's upbringing, his background and the challenges he has already faced, Davis is cautiously optimistic that Obama will be capable of gathering together the varied threads of the country's past to weave a new future.

"I hope he gets it," Davis said, an echo of Woody Guthrie's lyric hovering in the air above him: "Nobody living can ever stop me, as I go walking that freedom highway," it went. "This land was made for you and me."

published in The Post-Star Jan. 30, 2009