This Land is Still Ours

This Land is Your Land – Words and Music by Woody Guthrie, Paintings by Kathy Jakobsen, with a Tribute by Pete Seeger
Little, Brown and Company, 1998, reissued with new design and material, 2020

Kathy Jakobsen is an artist who has captured the beauty of both rural and urban America in several beautiful picture books. Like Walt Whitman, she hears America singing and she captures both the sights and sounds of our country in visual images drawn from both the folk art tradition and her own imagination. In This Land is Your Land she brings to life our unofficial national anthem. As I walked around my neighborhood in New York City yesterday, listening to shouts of joy and banging pots and pans, I thought of her, and Woody Guthrie’s, interpretation of who we are as a people.

There is no wasted space in her pictures. Some two-page spreads use all of their space to showcase images of both suffering and resilience, such as Woody’s “By the relief office I seen my people,” and “Nobody living can ever make me turn back;/This land was made for you and me.” The pictures include specific details which form a kind of conversation with the song lyrics.  A community’s church reaches out with signs about drug rehabilitation programs, life skills classes, and a job center. 

A couple sits on the step of their brick building, doing nothing but watching and resting, while others engage in busy activity, from changing a car’s tire to loading trash into a sanitation truck. Carefully placed signs or words make the scene both unique and generic: Open 24 hours on the church, Baby Bag on a woman’s satchel, as multicultural mix of different religious symbols on the church. 

Other pictures are like annotated manuscripts, a group of central images surrounded by information and additional quotes from Guthrie, and other visual vignettes. (I’m not sure if Jakobsen would today include the Confederate monument on Stone Mountain, Georgia.)  Marjorie Guthrie’s dance class is framed by a performance of the Boston Pops, Pete Seeger singing at the Clearwater Festival, and small adjacent rectangles with the Watts Tower in Los Angeles and an Alaskan totem pole. A three-page foldout of the United States as a richly green map surrounded by blue waters offers a unifying dream.  America is a land of ceaseless human activity, populated by laborers, artists, children, the elderly, black, white, and brown.  The tribute by Woody Guthrie’s colleague and musical heir, the late Pete Seeger (in the 1998 edition), is a moving companion to the text; additional background information and the song’s lyrics, fill in the history behind Guthrie’s unforgettable poem to the American people.  Even if Guthrie’s, and Jakobsen’s, faith in America as a place where we all share a distinctively democratic purpose may seem more aspirational than real, This Land is Your Land is a reminder of its validity.

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