November 21, 2016
Even before her recent too-damned-early death from cancer, I couldn’t listen to Sharon Jones’ version of “This Land is Your Land” without weeping.
Tonight, I’m listening over and over.
True, I am a sucker for her voice on any song. Add horns and a funky bassline from the Dap Kings, and I’ll surely swoon. But this song, this song, this is the song I sang sitting cross-legged on the carpet at Jefferson Elementary School and around beach campfires at San Clemente with my parents’ friends—this was the ‘70s after all—and from the too hot way back of the station wagon on family road trips from California to St. Louis when we stopped at every national park. The song needles into me and betrays one of my deepest secrets: I am fiercely patriotic.
The road trips did it to me, yes. The land itself—your land, my land—stretching out: mountains and prairies and deserts and oceans. Natural beauty moved me always, but my allegiance could easily have affixed to the earth in general or more specifically to the non-human world. (“I’d sooner kill a man than a hawk,” Robinson Jeffers famously once wrote, and at times his philosophy has perverse appeal.) But it didn’t. Because of what I read.
In high school I took a combination American history and literature class that started with one question: What is truth? A question that shook my very Catholic heart. How could there be more than one? You mean people could debate such things? From there, we were off to the Federalist Papers, The Scarlet Letter, Emerson and Thoreau—the usual suspects—but also Fredrick Douglass, Willa Cather, The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath and I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings. America wasn’t just land, it turned out, it was ideas, and we always seemed to be trying to make the ideas work better. That year I discovered Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” and played it over and over. So we’re all searching for America. So we’re all empty and aching, at least we were in it together.
Despite the many flaws of our leaders. Our babysitter screeched into the driveway to holler that Nixon had “erased the goddamned tapes.” A college professor announced in class that Reagan had sold arms to Iran to fund Nicaraguan rebels. (We figured, at first, he’d truly lost his liberal mind.) Clinton lied about Monica. Bush lied about WMDs. Power, Corruption & Lies wasn’t just an album title. There were always good reasons to stay vigilant. But not to give up.
When, two decades later, I went looking for stories to write, I met heroes and she-roes of the civil rights movement who told stories of their efforts and the real oppression they faced—arrests, beatings, lost jobs—with a shrug: It was no big deal. It was the right thing to do. Later Pauline Esteves, a Timbisha Shoshone elder in Death Valley, described to me how she’d been forcibly displaced as a child, had her adobe house hosed away as an adult, and still lived to be the lead negotiator when her tribe reclaimed its homeland from the U.S. government. For me to give into nonchalance draped in bitterness—to choose, say, not to vote—would betray these people and so many others.
The morning after the election I went running. Snow had crept low on the mountains, weak early winter sun shone on the river, still-yellow cottonwood leaves littered the gravel road, waiting to be churned to bits under tires. Neighbors passed in their super-sized American trucks, and I could hardly wave. Even though I always wave, every single morning, I didn’t want to wave.
I waved anyway.
Sharon Jones and I come from wildly different worlds, the far ends of that ribbon of a highway, you might say. A black woman born in South Carolina, she moved north, with hopes of making it as a singer, but was told she was too black, too short, too fat to ever make it in show business. She worked as a corrections officer at Rikers prison before getting her break, with her own band, her own label, when she was 40. Me, I’m a white lesbian, a woods-dwelling former trail crew laborer originally from Riverside, California.
Until this week, when I finally looked it up online, I never knew why Sharon Jones names Riverside in “This Land is Your Land” (because it’s the hometown of Dap-King bassist Gabe Roth). A suburb in the vast crowded space between the Pacific and the Mojave, Riverside is the kind of place that many people disparage (I’ve done it myself) a regular sun-soaked suburb, neither shiny nor shoddy, crisscrossed by freeways, lined with palm trees, inhabited by workers waiting outside Home Depot for a day job and old women pushing hand carts to the food bank, kids on playgrounds, moms in traffic, my family, my friends. My land. Your land. Every time Sharon Jones belts out “from Riverside, California” I’m moved the way, surely, some voters feel when a candidate speaks to them directly.
But that’s not all. It’s not the shout out, not the voice, not even nostalgia that gets to me most; it’s the lyrics themselves, especially in the final two verses with Woody Guthrie’s words tweaked only slightly.
In the third verse Sharon sings: As I was walking, now they tried to stop me / They put up a sign that said private property / Well, on the back side, you know, it said nothin’ / So it must be: That side was made for you and me. (Hear that, Ammon Bundy?)
And in the fourth verse, even more rarely sang or heard: One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple / Down by the welfare office, I saw my people / As they stood hungry, I stood wondering: If this land is made for you and me.
Not a proclamation, but a question, and a good one.
I only saw her live once, shaking and stomping and shimmering across the high stage. The word “dancing” does not begin to describe this. She was not far from death then, and carried deep weariness tucked in a tight sequined dress. But that didn’t stop her. She’d been told she could never make it before, but she made it anyway. She made it all the way until this week.
What we have is this country—in our country—is tenuous, every last bit of it. The land is threatened; non-human species are threatened. Ditto for our ideas. And then there are people, all of us, especially the vulnerable. Am I worried? I am. But I’m not giving up. I’m holding fast to this one word: patriotic. My word. Your word. I refuse to cede it even if I don’t know yet how to protect all it stands for. For now, all I know how to do is to get up in the morning and go running by the river and wave at my neighbors.
Then come home and turn Sharon up loud. Again and again.
Ana Maria Spagna
Read Ana Maria Spagna’s essay “Winter Flood,” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header image of American River by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Ana Maria Spagna courtesy Ana Maria Spagna.