This Land Was Made for You and Me
Like thousands of other Dust Bowl refugees, Woody Guthrie migrated to California. He scraped by, busking for spare change, washing dishes, sweeping floors. In 1937, he got a job at a small radio station in LA. As his popularity grew, Woody mimeographed copies of his songs to mail to fans.
In his songbook, “Ten Songs for Two Bits,” Woody wrote: “In these ten songs you will hear a lot of music of a lot of races. Songs of every color. Every people loves and copies the songs and the music, the ideas, the customs, of all the other races. Songs like these soak into every wall, hall, factory, every hull of every ship, every hammer coming down on every anvil, every seed falling down into every row, every hand moving with a dust rag, a wheel, a lever, a dial, a handle, a button pushed…I have never heard a nation of people sing an editorial out of a newspaper. A man sings about the little things that help him or hurt his people and he sings of what has got to be done to fix this world like it ought to be.”
Woody would go on to write a thousand such songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” a protest song in response to Irving Berlin’s patriotic hymn, “God Bless America,” which Woody felt glossed over the lop-sided distribution of wealth in America . “This Land is Your Land” was performed at the presidential inauguration last month—an appeal for unity. But Woody’s song reminds us that we have much work to do “to fix this world like it ought to be.”
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Sweet Land of Liberty
As a child, singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) showed remarkable talent, but she was turned away from the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was Black. Her church raised money for her to take private lessons. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson, by then a world renowned opera star, to perform at Constitution Hall in segregated Washington, D.C., leading First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the group in protest. Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead. More than 75,000 people gathered to hear Anderson sing. Millions listened on the radio. In 2009, as millions watched around the world, Aretha Franklin performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. She sang “My Country Tis of Thee.” It was the song Anderson had memorably performed on the National Mall 70 years before.
A Happier New Year
On Christmas Eve for ten years running, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt hosted an annual party at the White House for staff and their families. Police, cooks, maids, butlers and office employees all were invited. The First Couple would hand out small tokens of appreciation for their hard work. In 1934, they gave out autographed copies of the president’s book, On Our Way. Between 1935 and 1939, the gifts were pewter letter openers, mail organizers, and paperweights. In 1940, staff were given silver key chains featuring a Scottish terrier, in honor of Fala, the new “First Dog” (who reportedly had his own Christmas stocking). After the party, the Roosevelts and their guests would head outside for the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. In 1943, during some of the darkest days of World War II, FDR delivered a heartening Christmas Eve Fireside Chat. “We may look forward into the future with real, substantial confidence that, however great the cost, ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ can be and will be realized and insured.” Read more at the White House Historical Association’s website.
President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed in 1863 the last Thursday in November as a national holiday for giving thanks. But in 1939, retailers feared that a late Thanksgiving that year (November 30) could hurt Christmas sales. Traditionally, the Christmas shopping season began the day after Thanksgiving, but President Roosevelt decided to move the date up a week, to the second-to-last Thursday of November. Much upheaval, protest and comedy ensued, leading some to deride the holiday as “Franksgiving.” Democrats favored the switch 52% to 48%, according to a Gallup Poll, while Republicans opposed it 79% to 21%. Americans overall were opposed. That year, twenty-three states and the District of Columbia recognized the holiday on November 23; twenty-two states preserved the traditional date, which some called the “Republican” Thanksgiving; and three states celebrated the holiday in both weeks. Popular comedians of the day, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and the Three Stooges joked about the confusion over when to observe Thanksgiving Day. A 1941 Commerce Department survey found no significant expansion of retail sales due to the change, and Congress voted to designate the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day. Roosevelt went along and signed the bill.
A New Deal for America’s Workers
Labor Day became an official US holiday in 1894, but took on particular meaning during its 50th anniversary. In 1934, a quarter of American workers were unemployed. The country was rife with unrest, with thousands demanding jobs and better wages and working conditions. FDR’s first priority was to restore confidence and get people working again. The New Deal not only provided jobs, it led to federal legislation that fundamentally changed the relationship between workers and management, and by extension, American society. The National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, guaranteed employees’ right to collective bargaining. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a minimum wage (25 cents); provided for a 40-hour work week and overtime pay; and outlawed child labor—a cause championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. On Labor Day, as we celebrate workers’ contributions to the strength and well-being of our nation, let’s also reflect on the New Deal’s contributions to America’s workers.
Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Heat Nor Gloom—Nor Politics?
During the Great Depression, struggling artists got work through federal art programs creating public art that reflected America to itself. The 1,200 murals they painted in post offices around the country often portrayed hard work, determination and confidence—values meant to encourage Americans through hard times. As post offices are sold and these murals vanish from view, Americans’ determination and confidence are being tested, as is the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver the 80 million mail-in ballots expected to be cast in next month’s election on time—potentially disqualifying them. Chiseled in granite on New York City General Post Office is this promise, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” It makes no promises about politics.
The following is a partial and ever-changing list of New Deal art in need of preservation.
More Than Just Pretty Pictures
Gordon Parks’ work epitomized the black-and-white photography of the Depression era. He joined the Farm Security Administration in 1942—the agency’s only black photographer. He chronicled African Americans’ everyday lives, poverty, racial injustice, and the struggle for civil rights. Parks died in 2006 at age 93, but continues to inspire a new generation of photographers documenting these turbulent times. Reflecting on Gordon Parks, the Brooklyn-based photographer Andre D. Wagner recounts, “The camera in my life started to make sense when I thought about it the way Parks did: I could use it as a weapon.” “Photography became more than just pretty pictures—it was a way to be defiant and to speak about society.” Watch Wagner’s video essay “On Being a Black Photographer.” (4 minutes).