Woody Guthrie Turns in His Grave, or, How Jeep Sells Jeeps by the Seashore

Automobile brand Jeep paid ~$4.5 million to air a commercial during the Super Bowl yesterday. The ad, which features a montage of grand American vistas followed by landmarks from around the globe, is accompanied by two stanzas of folksinger Woody Guthrie’s classic, “This Land Was Your Land.” On the surface the connection between Jeep and Guthrie’s song makes perfect sense.

Guthrie penned the song in 1940; the first Jeep came off the line in 1941. It makes sense to pair rugged and remote locations with the message of those two verses of the song, that if you want to see the land which the Lord your God will give you was made for you and me, then drive that “ribbon of highway” in a Jeep from sea to shining sea. Jeep sells luxury vehicles to those who want to off-road in comfort. (Although I saw far more Jeeps in Philly’s urban streets than I have out here in rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps we should say it sells luxury vehicles to those who like the idea that they could off-road in comfort if they ever got a break from trading derivatives or preparing legal briefs).

Yet the pairing is completely incongruous once you look at Guthrie’s original intent with the song. Guthrie wrote it in 1940 because he was frustrated with all the airplay given to Irving Berlin’s 1938 hit “God Bless America.” Berlin, a Russian immigrant, was thankful for his adopted country and the success he had enjoyed as a songwriter in the US which would have been barred to him as a Jew in much of the rest of the world. For Berlin, America was free, fair, and God-guided.

To Guthrie, Berlin’s lyrics were naive. Guthrie was native-born in Oklahoma and the son of a moderately successful businessman and local politician. In the 1930s he became a communist (although he did not officially join the CPUSA). While Berlin saw freedom and opportunity in the American expanse, Guthrie saw its limits. He originally titled his response, “God Blessed America,” with the emphasis on the past tense. Yes, America was a beautiful gift, but a gift given to a select few.

The original six verses of the song brought the listener along with Guthrie as he traveled across the country, all the way “from California to the New York Island” (v. 1). When he looked out over the valleys (v. 2), wheat fields (v. 5), and deserts (v. 3), Guthrie realized that this land, which had been made for all, had become the preserve of the few. Verses 4 and 6 were the heart of the song. (The original title was later crossed out and the familiar phrase put in its place.)

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing–
God blessed America for me. This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people–
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me. This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the song to protest the economic inequality of American society. As a communist, he blamed that inequality on private property and believed individual ownership of the means of production had resulted in the poverty and scarcity which plagued America during the Great Depression. If God had blessed America with abundance for all, why were so many struggling without? All this wealth and land and yet people were standing in soup kitchen lines.

Guthrie died in 1967, but his song–sans verses 4 and 6–became a popular anthem in the 1960s when a variety of folk revival groups covered it, from Bob Dylan to the Kingston Trio. But by removing the politically-charged verses, the song became just another generic paean to the beauty and greatness of America. It had become the very thing it had been written to critique.

Jeep’s 2015 ad takes that defanging to an extreme. It ends with Jeep’s new slogan, the first words of which seem quite fitting: “The World is a gift.” Well, Woody wouldn’t disagree with that. Okay. But then the second half of the slogan was revealed: “Play responsibly.” Apparently, this land is a playground for those wealthy enough to afford a brand new Jeep. A song meant to critique inequality is now a celebration of privilege. And Guthrie’s rejection of private property has been turned into an ad to convince people to buy luxury cars.

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