ROOTS IN THE ARCHIVE: ‘This Land’ and Sea Shanties on the World Stage
Pete Seeger models a knitted wool hat at home, with his wife Toshi in the background. (Photo by Peggy Bulger for the American Folklife Center)
When roots music fans look back on January 2021, we’re likely to remember two things: the events at the U.S. Capitol and the sudden explosion of sea shanties on social media. This month I’ll highlight some archival treasures held by the American Folklife Center that are related to both these notable events.
I won’t dwell on the insurrection of Jan. 6, although for those of us who work in the Capitol complex, it will stay in our minds for a long time. Instead, let’s think about the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris. If you’re a roots music nerd like me, you might have been excited to hear Jennifer Lopez singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” during the festivities. She did a lovely job, making it into a medley with “America the Beautiful,” accompanied by some of the monster musicians of the United States Marine band. You can see it on YouTube here.
Having a Latina and woman of color sing “This Land Is Your Land” would have delighted Woody Guthrie, whose concern for both Spanish-speaking migrants and people of color is documented in his songs and writings. Also, Woody wrote scathingly of the racism of “Old Man Trump,” the former president’s father, who was his landlord and who, Woody alleged, wouldn’t let African Americans live in his buildings. In Woody’s notebook, he specifically welcomes to his building the “negro girl yonder that walks along against this headwind / holding onto her purse and her fur coat.” So the replacement of Old Man Trump’s son with President Biden and Vice President Harris, an African American woman, would probably have tickled him too.
It was great to hear J.Lo recite part of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, but I couldn’t help feel it would have been even cooler if she had sung at least part of “This Land Is Your Land” in Spanish too. The message of the song is inclusiveness, so it’s always nice to hear it in the many languages that Americans speak, including Spanish. Luckily, this is one area where the American Folklife Center can help. We have two Spanish versions and a bilingual version of “This Land Is Your Land” online in video form.
The first Spanish version comes from The Sones de Mexico Ensemble from Chicago, who played the song for us in the historic Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in September 2015. It’s also the title track of their Grammy-nominated album Esta Tierra Es Tuya. You can hear it in the video below, along with an introduction by Juan Dies:
Our bilingual version comes from the East L.A. son jarocho ensemble Las Cafeteras, and was recorded for us live at the Folk Alliance International conference in 2017. It’s a high-energy romp that you can hear below:
Finally, in 2018 Elena y los Fulanos performed the song for us at the Library. The band’s frontwoman, Elena Lacayo, grew up in Nicaragua and now lives in Washington, D.C. She explains her own connection to the song (which started with the Sones de Mexico version) before singing it in the video below.
Thinking about Jennifer Lopez’s performance also reminds me of the last time “This Land Is Your Land” was performed at an inauguration. It was Barack Obama’s historic 2009 inauguration, and the performers were Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. Tao is a folk music veteran; he was a co-founder of The Mammals and he provided the singing for many Pete Seeger concerts when Pete’s voice started giving out. Tao’s father is Puerto Rican, and he grew up in Nicaragua, and as you can hear in the video below, his voice was really the most prominent sound on the song, so he’s arguably the first Latinx singer to lead “This Land Is Your Land” at an inauguration.
I live-blogged the Obama inauguration concert on behalf of the Library of Congress for MTV News, providing background on the songs. I remember writing about Tao and about Springsteen’s 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, on which The Boss played songs he learned from Seeger — his first deep involvement with Pete’s catalog. The album led directly to their appearing at the inauguration together.
And that’s where the sea shanties come in. One of the great tracks on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is “Pay Me My Money Down,” which Seeger first recorded with The Weavers. It’s a genuine shanty, first reported being sung at sea in 1858. In the early 20th century, two versions were learned by the shantyman Stan Hugill from singers who came from St. Lucia and Barbados. In the Georgia Sea Islands, it was sung by roustabouts, dock laborers who loaded cargo into ships. During Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, when white bosses tried to cheat Black laborers out of their pay, the song was an assertive cry for justice:
Pay me! Pay me!
Pay me my money down!
Pay me, or go to jail!
Pay me my money down!
You can hear the Bruce Springsteen version in the video below:
The Sea Islands version of this song was published by Lydia Parrish in her 1942 book Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. She included the song despite the fact that it’s obviously not a slave song, since the workers loudly demand payment! Parrish was instrumental in organizing the singing group that would later take the name the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The version in Parrish’s book is the one sung by this important group — and it’s the one Seeger brought to The Weavers.
Parrish was not the only one to collect it in the United States, though. In 1944, Alan Lomax recorded a version of the song from longshoremen in Tampa, Florida. In his book Folk Songs of North America, Lomax reports hearing it in Brunswick, Georgia, in the 1940s, right near the Sea Island Singers’ home on St. Simons Island, but I’ve never found a corresponding recording. He doesn’t specifically say that he made a recording, and the fact that he published the chorus with no verses suggests he didn’t have one to refer to.
Luckily, Lomax finally recorded the Sea Island Singers’ version in 1959, on a good clean tape recording that’s a pleasure to listen to. On this recording, we can hear how the same version of this shanty sounded when sung by a work crew rather than by the Weavers or by Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions band. One of the inspiring things about working in the American Folklife Center archive is being able to hear the field recordings that inspired so many great modern interpretations. This recording is online courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity, so you can hear it too.
No discussion of Inauguration 2021 would be complete without a mention of Bernie Sanders and his warm woolen mittens, which became one of the iconic memes of the inauguration. What if the mittens, too, have a connection to roots music? Consider the following: Just like Springsteen, Sanders once recorded an album of folksongs inspired by Pete Seeger and titled We Shall Overcome. The album even included Sanders’ rendition of “This Land Is Your Land,” which he performed as a declamatory poem backed by a reggae band. You can hear that on YouTube too!
I’ll also note that Sanders attended the 2009 inauguration. It seems likely he noticed his idol Pete Seeger singing “This Land Is Your Land” while wearing an adorable knitted wool hat. So the million-dollar question is: Was Pete’s casual cold-weather look from 2009 the inspiration for Bernie’s moment of mitten couture? I haven’t yet discovered any archival recordings to shed light on this mystery, but I promise to keep looking!
Stephen Winick is a folklife specialist for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and editor of its blog, Folklife Today. Because the Library of Congress is federally funded, these columns are in the public domain, not subject to No Depression‘s copyright.