All posts filed under “American Mythology

About One of The Most Beautiful Songs Ever Written.

During a long, cold drive home from Boston this past weekend, I zoned out on the rhythm and sounds of the road when the familiar opening lines of Springsteen’s cover of This Land is Your Land woke me up from my road-induced stooper. I reached down to turn it up and started thinking about the lyrics, about the land I was driving through.

Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land makes me well up with tears. I try not to get sentimental or patriotic, since my relationship with the United States is both overtly romantic and terribly cynical, but when I hear the first opening chords to This Land, I get goose bumps. I get a big, stupid lump in my throat. I have an intense emotional reaction to singing along with it. The lyrics, simple but perfect, catch me and make me sit up straight every single time. I can remember singing it way back in elementary school (like most kids that went to school in the U.S. from 1960 onward) and not being all that impressed. Now, now that I have read about Guthrie, have learned about his life, his art and his legacy, I can’t help myself. There is no other piece of literature, song or art that so amazingly describes what I see in the landscape, physical and otherwise, of the country in which I was born.

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.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
Saying this land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

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.

Guthrie wrote the song in reaction to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, as an angry response to Berlin’s fluffy and vague lyrics. In the context of the time in which is was written (1941) and by whom (Guthrie was well associated with the Communist Party in 30’s and 40’s during the Great Depression and into WWII), the song is a gorgeous tribute to the vast, plentiful land in which the Unites States was born from. He evokes that enormous landscape not only to remind the listener to really think about the land they’re standing on but also to talk about the ideals of democracy in a very subtle way that is absolutely brilliant. What is also fascinating about the song is the way that other countries have adopted the lyrics to describe their own landscape. The wikipedia page mentions several different versions for Canada, Ireland, Sweden and India. I can’t help but wonder why the song has so much pull for other countries as well.

I can’t mention Woody Guthrie without mentioning Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, a book that should be required reading for anyone remotely interested in American history, is a remarkable and heart-breaking account of Guthrie’s life, death and legacy. As his own American myth, Guthrie’s life is fascinating and his character unlike anyone I’ve read about. While daunting in size and detail, it gives insight into Guthrie as a person without glorifying or demeaning him.

Often, when I am passing through a particularly beautiful piece of land or driving through a particularly depressing part of the U.S., I find myself humming This Lands is Your Land to myself quietly, without irony, just with a sense of wonder and sadness for the land that I am surrounded by.

Outside Lies Magic.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, book that encourages exploration of the everyday landscape to find the beauty and history that lies mostly ignored next to shopping malls, beyond the interstate and buried deep in the woods. I love Stilgoe’s writing. I hold a deep wonder at the everyday, seemingly mundane world around me and to read someone else’s thoughts and ideas, which have been thoroughly researched, is so exciting and inspires me to no end. I have been fingering and turning over the ideas he presents in Outside since I finished reading it at the beginning of the month, pondering over electrical lines and smiling to myself about the rails that crisscross and snake through the area around my house.

Stilgoe points to Sundays, the day of rest, as a good day for exploration. I woke up this past Sunday from a nap after a exciting weekend, filled with visits from much-loved people in my life, around 5.30pm. The air was brisk despite the warm weather. It was filled with the sharpness of autumn, with wood smoke. I glanced around the suburban neighborhood that I live in, listening to the quiet with the interstate out in the distance. That sound, that lovely sounds of dried leaves blowing, scraping along asphalt came with the stir of the breeze. I walked out past the neat houses, past the planned, curving roads to an intersection I know well. I caught the bus there my first two years of high school. When I first started the type of exploration that colors my life, there was a barn across the wide rural road. It sat behind a large oak tree. I often found myself inside this barn, walking along the cross beams, since the second floor had fallen in. The photographs I took on a particular, gorgeous snowy day hang in my parents’ house now, the only records I have of the space.

The land was cleared for a development that was never built my senior year of high school. The land still stands empty and is currently used as a place for growing trees by a local nursery. I’ve watched 10 year old tress being pulled out of the ground, like an infected molar, from this field. On this day, however, there was no witness save for a fox, bounding across the road, pausing to watch me before disappearing into dead stalks of corn.

The houses along this stretch of road are, for the most part, older. Their history stretches back to when the area was wide, open cornfields and farms. They have witnessed the selling off of the land, to massive companies who put distribution centers that are miles long. Lightening rods extend just beyond the chimneys.

The houses and their arrangement are the opposite of the place that I live in, less than a mile away. They sit close to the road. They are worn and small. I like to picture myself living in house like those that dot Ruppsville Road, tending a garden in the summer and holed up against the cold in winter. The cold that I am quietly excited for, as it means big sweaters and boots and the way snow makes the world still. For now I watch the leaves fall from trees and pull warm socks up to my knees.

The light was fading, disappearing behind the lip of the earth. Walking along the white line that marks the road, I lingered at corners, meandered onto the grass that lines the side of the road. I took everything in, letting the details settle into my head. A dog barked as I started off the road, toward the bright empty parking lot of one of those enormous distribution centers.

I was dumbfounded by the immense, dead space and the “nothingness” of the building, sitting so close to so many places with personal, quiet history. The massive structure was impersonal and so boring compared to the places I had just been admiring. So, I walked away and onward, eying the shining rails across the street.

I started really seeing railroads and the space around them after I watched The Station Agent, a gorgeous movie that follows a train-enthusiast and his story of moving to a small rural New Jersey town to live in an old train station. I started thinking about them because of Mr. Stilgoe, who has done quite a bit of work on them. I also started seeing them because of the surprisingly large amount of train enthusiasts who’s photographs I print at work; their passion and consistency in which they obsessively photograph trains warms my picture-making, exploring heart. I find myself thinking about the rails after I bump over them in my car. As I scrambled up the fat gravel and stepped over the rails, I looked down the tracks in both directions, coming and going. I couldn’t stop thinking about the small bits and pieces of railroad history that I’ve retained. The rails gleamed in the dying light as walked in step across the ties.

I headed home in the dark, my pace quickening. I stopped looking around and started moving quickly along the side of the road, glancing behind to watch for cars, since I stupidly wore a dark sweatshirt. Racing across the street to the development, I pondered dinner and Monday morning.

On Vernacular Photography, Mostly.

Recently, I started working at a large photo lab here in L.V. Through the tedious and unending process of scanning film and eventually printing pictures (I’m still in training alright?), I see a large number of photographs that normally I wouldn’t even bother thinking about. I get an odd excitement when I get to make reprints or when I pull film out of the C-41 machine. I find it extremely interesting to get to look at photos, be they good or mediocre. It’s getting to see into a life that isn’t yours.

I’ve been pondering ideas and thoughts about the snapshot, it’s place in society and our hearts. I wonder why people choose to take photos that they’ve taken, what makes them press the button at that moment. I am perpetually surprised at the more-often-than-one-would-think great shot that comes out of the average picture taker. I’ve seen a lot of really bad pictures. I’ve grown to hate disposable cameras, given my propensity to stab myself with the flathead screwdriver that we use to pry them open with (high tech, I know).

In the few short weeks I’ve been working there, I’ve gone, through the magic of the snapshot, to at least 20 weddings (mostly all of which were shot on shitty disposable cameras but that’s another post for another day), to the Carribean, to Alaska about 6 or 7 times, to Nevada, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Boston (aw.), Texas, and a Redwood forest. I’ve been at lots of 1st birthdays and Christmas mornings. I went to Disney World in 1994 (albeit underexposed and heat fogged, but still). I get to see stuff that I generally wouldn’t get to see were it not for the inherent need to capture the same moments in time for a lot of us. It’s like watching the good, important moments of your life happen to other people you don’t know. You get to witness the trips and moments you missed out on. It’s strange.

As I see it, all of the pictures that come into and go out of the lab are an endless look into what we love, hate, desire, and hope for. Collectively, it’s a window into (and I hesitate to say the word, since I harp on it a lot) American life. Thousands of photographs by mostly anonymous picture-takers is a “universal” glimpse and a catalog fleeting moments that are held near and dear. The snapshot camera gives a way to hold onto them, even if we just let them sit in albums or on a harddrive.

I am sure that by next month I will get good and jaded at look at pictures. I will get really sick of Disneyworld and Alaska. But right now, this is a novelty.