When most of our everyday words — lectures, readings, the stuff on meeting agendas — fail to move us, it may be song lyrics that bring us most quickly back to understanding the magical power words possess. There’s probably no better song to sum up what “Words Are Roads: Yellowstone” is all about than Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
It may be, as the Boss himself has said, “about the greatest song ever written about America.” Springsteen, in this moving 1985 tribute to the song, knew the simple and elegant lyrics transport us to the plains and seashores and mountains, but also that they address some of the contradictions that keep us from enjoying what should belong, by all rights, to everybody.
Guthrie’s lyrics, first written in 1940, originally contained two verses about private property and hunger that later were dropped from the shorter version most people are familiar with. The song has a fascinating history that demonstrates how words live on and inspire artists and other people from different eras.
Among my favorite responses to the original Guthrie work is Todd Snider’s “This Land is Our Land.” Snider’s lyrics immediately call to mind the more pastoral elements of Guthrie’s work primarily because of their caustic, contradictory vision of an America comprising “paper plates and plastic trees, styrofoam and antifreeze.”
When “Words are Roads” heads out under Guthrie’s endless skyway, we’ll be listening to Snider, Springsteen and, of course, Woody himself. We’ll hope their words, among those of many others, will help us answer our big question: how do we reconcile our need to enjoy and protect nature with our desire for economic development?
The idea for this course came, as I’ve noted elsewhere, from the big idea that was the Yellowstone Trail itself and the words that helped the idea become reality. Snider makes direct reference to the negative consequences of such big ideas — a theme we’ll explore frequently — but as a huge fan of both Snider and Springsteen, I see plenty of hope, optimism and humor in the work of both men, who are certainly carrying on in the best tradition of Woody Guthrie.
As Springsteen notes, “With countries, just like people, it’s easy to let the best of yourselves slip away.” Guthrie’s song is the greatest because it gets “right to the heart of what our country was supposed to be about,” Springsteen says, even though many people may not believe it to be true anymore.
“But I know,” the Boss concludes, ” … that it oughta be.”