A Hymn to British/Saxon/American Nationalism

At the American Society of Church History conference in April, Mary Jane Haemig presented an interesting paper discussing how German-American churches in Minnesota commemorated Reformation Day in 1917. It was the four hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous posterizing of a church door in Wittenberg–I like to imagine it looked something like this–but the context was challenging given that the United States was currently as at war with Germany. As I mentioned in a previous post, German-Americans were treated poorly during World War 1, enduring both legal sanctions and unofficial harassment. Many native born Americans suspected them of harboring sympathies for the enemy.

This left German-Americans in a bind. They were predominately Lutheran and they wanted to celebrate the man who gave birth to their religious tradition. But Luther, it must be admitted, was quite distinctly German. Celebrating a German national hero could have further alienated already suspicious non-German neighbors. German-Americans tried to diffuse any tension by emphasizing the ways in which Luther contributed to the development of modern democracy and religious freedom. In that same spirit, the Reformation Day celebrations featured many familiar patriotic songs like the National Anthem.

One of the more popular songs sung that day is a bit more obscure unless you happen to be from a Lutheran background. The hymn is based on a poem written in German, “Gott segne Sachsenland” (God save Saxony). The author was Siegfried August Mahlmann, a minor but popular 19th century German poet. Mahlmann set the text to the tune of the British anthem “God Save the King.” After all, why should only the British get to claim that God would “scatter [the King’s] enemies, and make them fall, confound their politics, [and] frustrate their knavish tricks”? God loves Saxons too!

What’s fascinating about the poem is its timing. It was written in 1815 at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars. Most Americans who are somewhat familiar with the period think of the wars as a clash primarily between Britain and France. It’s easy to forget that almost all of Europe was involved. Saxony had a particularly rough go of it. In 1813 it was the site of French, Russian, and Prussian military campaigns. At the time Saxony, under its ruler Frederick Augustus I, was allied with Napoleon, albeit quite reluctantly having fought against France several years earlier. When Napoleon (and the Saxon Army) were decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig that year, Frederick Augustus was taken into captivity by the Prussians, who had designs on Saxon territory. After a year and a half in prison, the Prussians released Frederick and forced him to sign a treaty giving roughly half of Saxony to Prussia. Still, when Frederick returned home, he was hailed as a hero who had saved Saxony from complete destruction.

Mahlmann’s poem was a hymn to Saxon nationalism. He hailed Frederick as the good King and Father who had stood true through storm and night. Mahlmann’s patriotism isn’t surprising given that he himself had spent time in a French prison in 1813. After years caught between the equally rapacious French and Prussians, Saxony had finally seen the dawn of a new era, or so they hoped. The song’s story might have ended there as a minor monument to a forgotten nationalist sentiment (Saxony would be subsumed by the Second German Reich sixty years later). But in 1844 American musician John Sullivan Dwight translated the hymn, removed the Saxony-specific stanzas, and gave the song a second life. Many Lutheran and Episcopalian hymnbooks still include it. Here is Dwight’s version:

God bless our native land!
Firm may she ever stand,
Through storm and night;
When the wild tempests rave,
Ruler of wind and wave,
Do Thou our country save
By Thy great might.

For her our prayers shall rise
To God, above the skies;
On Him we wait;
Thou Who art ever nigh,
Guarding with watchful eye,
To Thee aloud we cry,
God save the State.

God no longer saved the King of Britain or the King of Saxony, but rather the State, a more fitting designee for divine authority in the democratically-minded United States. Thus when German-Americans sang the song with gusto in 1917, they were able to simultaneously declare their loyalty to the American government and assert that they belonged in their new native land.

Let’s recap. A song proclaiming that God had a special relationship to England became an ode to God’s protection of Saxony. Then an American repurposed it as an appeal for God’s preservation of the US federal government. A generation or so later, German-American immigrants sang it to show that they were as loyal to America as any native born citizen. I’m reminded of a J. C. Squire poem:

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout,
“Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”
God this, God that, and God the other thing.
“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out!”

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.