Sunday’s star-studded inaugural concert on the National Mall captured the enthusiasm and optimism of the incoming Obama presidency, but for me, one moment truly embodied the spirit of America.
Throughout the program, speakers and musical artists – from Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder to U2 to Beyonce – wove together different strands of the American experience.
In brief remarks, Vice President-elect Joe Biden extolled the virtues of the American worker. He was followed by John Mellencamp, whose rendition of the highly ironic “Pink Houses,” accompanied by photos of men and women in hard hats and standing on assembly lines, seemed an odd choice if the intent was to uplift the 2 million people who lost their jobs last year or the millions without health care.
So I was astounded – and then brought to tears – when at the close of the program Springsteen introduced folk legend Pete Seeger and his grandson, Tao, and all three led the crowd in singing what Springsteen called “the best song ever written about our home” – Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” penned in 1940:
“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.”
My jaw dropped when they launched into these seldom-heard lyrics:
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.”
The moment was historic – and refreshingly relevant.
Just ask the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago who occupied their abandoned factory last month to get the pay they were owed and who are now seeking a buyer to reopen the plant.
Or the largely immigrant workforce at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, N.C., who finally won a voice on the job after years of struggle
Or the thousands of union volunteers who were in New Orleans over Martin Luther King weekend to help the many families still waiting to return to their homes.
In the lyrics to a nearly 70-year-old song, the throng gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the millions more watching on television and the Internet heard a message of hope based on the power of people being true to themselves – and to each other.
Thank you, Bruce. Thank you, Pete and Tao. And most of all, thank you, Woody.
For more information
View video of the concert at www.hbo.com/weareone
Learn more about Woody Guthrie at www.woodyguthrie.org