That Ribbon of Highway: Sharon Jones Re-shapes Woody Guthrie's Song

Christopher John Stephens
Photo from Barbara Kopples' Miss Sharon Jones (2016)

Sharon Jones and Woodie Guthrie knew: great songs belong to everybody.

Sometimes a singer’s work is too conveniently packaged. Is this one simply a stylist dedicated to carefully approximating their genre? Is that one an innovator? In the case of Sharon Jones, who died last November after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, the truth is somewhere else.

At 60, she could have had a good 25 more years to create an even stronger presence than she did in her powerful tenure. For those who see signs and connections everywhere, it couldn’t be more fortuitous that S Jones released “This Land Is Your Land” as the flip side of her 2004 single, “What if we all stopped paying taxes?” Backed with a funky bass and horns combo groove from the Dap-Kings, Jones burns through this stomper like she’s trying to put out a fire. The question of the A-side is spelled out succinctly in the verses:

Now tell me who's gonna buy their bombs

Their tanks, their planes, and all their guns

Well, tell me who's gonna pay for their wars

If we all get together and cut their funds…

With probably a minute remaining in the song, emcee Binky Griptite breaks down the message and intones in a spoken improvisation to the audience that it’s up to us. Don’t wait for anybody else. In the true tradition of sanctified funk and R&B that was at the core of the music Jones championed during her 20 years recording and touring with the Dap Kings, the message was clear: keep dancing, keep giving in to the beat, but don’t forget the message.

Any time we categorize “This Land Is Your Land”, the single’s B-side, we run the risk of patronizing and simplifying what it means. Woody Guthrie was a folksinger, not a melismatic vocal superstar or a majestic finger-picking bottle-neck guitar god. He was both an ideal marketing package of the wandering hobo built to sell product like Will Rogers sold cornpone humor, but he was also simple and pure.

Most sheet music arrangements for the song suggest a “bright and cheerful” tone. This certainly isn’t how Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings seem to take it. In a menacing arrangement from Griptite, this version is tight and funky, like a James Brown ballad that wants to hold a loved one close and sway and dares you not to cry. The horns punch up the spaces between the lines and the dangerous rhythm tells us this singer might not really subscribe to the sentiments. She’s grabbed it, this idea that everything the land represents is hers, yours and ours, but she seems to know this arrangement won’t last forever.

Jason Reitman wisely chose the song for the opening scene in his 2009 film adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel, Up in the Air. In this film, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate downsizer, a company fixer. He flies above the country, over the heartland, coming down long enough to initiate attrition in the corporate ranks. Afterwards, he goes away. Bingham and Jones seemed to share the same ambivalent, tenuous connection with this country they used to love. Bingham might have felt great sailing on that silver spaceship in the sky, slicing through the clouds, his only concern earning a million frequent flyer miles, yet he was always in pain. He wanted to know what Guthrie felt, but he never had that chance.

The best musical choral arrangement for “This Land Is Your Land” can’t be simpler. Go with a quick one/two beat and strum G/D/A/D through six verses and eight renditions of the chorus. There's no bridge, no building up to and then releasing tension. This is the way most American school kids learned the song and sang it loudly, optimistically and quickly in Memorial Day recitals. For the most part it’s a harmless romp through our land, coast to coast, over the sparkling sands of diamond deserts and waving wheat fields and rolling dust clouds. We feel good because we’re part of a grand design. We declare that we've been given this great torch to take through our section of the relay game. We can’t drop it for fear of setting the world on fire, and that risk makes our performance that much more vital.

It isn’t until the fourth verse where we enter some risky territory. Guthrie has come upon a “No Trespassing” sign. He sees that the other side says nothing and confidently proclaims, “That side was made for you and me.” In the next verse, things get even darker. Guthrie sees his people standing in front of the relief office, standing around waiting for something to happen. They’re hungry and hopeless and the dream has passed them by. It’s the only verse that turns the key line in the chorus into a question: “Is this land made for you and me?”

In the final verse, the freedom highway is within view, and Guthrie’s firmly planted his feet upon it. “Nobody living can ever make me turn back,” he sings, and the certainty is undeniable. Eliminate all the fear of homelessness, hunger, and unemployment. Go forward on the highway and don’t look back.

Too many lines from great songs still swim through our collective national mindset, fighting for a seat at the common table. Stephen Foster tells us there will be no more hard times. The Carter family sings longingly from 1935 Depression America about the promise of a better life in the sky. Johnny Cash sings with equal comfort about poor Delia, gone via a bullet from his own gun, and Guthrie stays untouched. We romanticize icons, place them in a glass tomb like Mao or Lenin on perpetual display, but With Guthrie it’s unavoidable. Guthrie was and is America, vox populi, and these days the spirit will need to be strong again.

Guthrie's song was there in images of the 2013 Oklahoma Tornados, like a cloudy grey visage in a spirit photograph, the uninvited guest who won’t let go, just like his songs provided the soundtrack in the Depression Era photos of Dorothea Lange. If you ain’t got the Do Re Mi, boy, you better go home.

Indeed, Guthrie was the intruder, the reminder, not just of what we’ve done as a country, but what we citizens have yet to do as a creative force. Jones proved -- with her legendary cover of what sometimes can be a stale ballad -- that great songs belong to everybody. In these times, Jones and Guthrie are sorely missed.

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