Last week, in my basic U.S. History course, we came to one of my favorite things to lecture about: popular culture during the Great Depression. It gives me a chance to talk about several things I enjoy but discuss them on a deeper level, helping students see how those things reflect the feelings of people at the time. For example, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges - and even Bugs Bunny - were agents of chaos, going into the world of the upper classes and turning everything upside down. Gangster movies (and real-life gangsters, too) became hugely popular because they were “sticking it to the man.” Pulp fiction and comic book superheroes took the country’s youth by storm, because a Depression and a brewing World War helped make empowerment fantasies extremely important to kids entering puberty.
We also discussed folk entertainers like those great Oklahomans Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie. The students had never heard of either one of them, but they all knew Guthrie’s most famous song: “This Land is Your Land.” I asked them what the song is about. “How great America is,” they answered. I informed them that, when they learned this song, they were never played THE WHOLE THING. There is a part at the end that is almost always left off. I played it for them, with the lyrics cast on the screen. I’m going to paraphrase most of it here.
First there was a verse where the singer sees a No Trespassing sign. The other side doesn’t say anything: THAT side is made for you and me.
The next verse describes a line of people, in the shadow of a church, at the unemployment office. This makes him ask, “IS this land made for you and me?”
In the final verse, he says “Nobody living can ever stop me as I go walking that freedom highway. Nobody living can make me turn back. This land is made for you and me.”
I was watching them while they watched the screen. Several had widened eyes and dropped jaws when we came to the last part of it… because they were realizing that this song did not mean what they had always thought it did. Guthrie wasn’t JUST talking about how great America is - he was also talking about the ways it fell short. There are authorities making rules designed to inhibit your freedom, while not doing enough to help you make your way. Nonetheless, he expresses determination to be free nonetheless.
I then showed them the famous speech at the end of “The Grapes of Wrath,” where the Okie, Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda), says that maybe we aren’t a bunch of individual souls - maybe we’re all little parts of a big soul, and, when one person suffers, we all do. I pointed out that the words of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck (through his character Tom Joad) were reflections of a lot of New Deal Democrats and people on the left, in general, during the Depression.
The Guthrie song, I said, reminded me of another song 50 years later by Bruce Springsteen (who did a whole album called “The Ghost of Tom Joad”). I asked how many of them were familiar with “Born in the USA” - almost all were. What is it about? “How great America is.” So we listened. Jaws dropped once more when they realized the song was about a working-class Vietnam veteran who couldn’t find a job, or any help, and wound up in prison. The chorus was a sarcastic condemnation of the failure of the “American Dream.”
Here is my point, for them and for you. This is what history is. Taking something you never thought about deeply before, and thought you understood, and looking more closely to see what it really meant.
That practice, like those songs, ultimately IS patriotic, after all. They’re about how great America SHOULD be.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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