This land is not your land

Pete Seeger died in an America with record inequality

January 28, 2014
January 28, 2014

Many obituaries of American folk singer Pete Seeger, who died on Jan. 28 at age 94, detail his civil rights support, his run-ins with the US’s anti-Communist campaigns of the 1950s, and his penning or popularizing of songs like  “We Shall Overcome” and “Turn Turn Turn.”

But if, like this writer, you’re an American born well after those events, and particularly one who grew up in the Hudson River Valley, where Seeger made his home, the song you may most closely associate with him is the folk anthem “This Land Is Your land,” which Woody Guthrie wrote and Seeger re-introduced to several new generations after Guthrie’s death in 1967. (Seeger loved it so much, he even added two verses.)

The song was a fervent sing-along staple during Seeger’s summertime Clearwater Festivals. He performed it with Bruce Springsteen during president Barack Obama’s inauguration, and for his own 90th birthday party at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Its descriptions of the natural majesty of the US and equality as an inherent American right (“This land was made for you and me”) also made it a required part of middle-school chorus repertoires across the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

That makes it all the more depressing that since 1967, the year Guthrie died and the earliest inequality data became available, the Gini coefficient—a measure of wealth distribution—has risen sharply (a higher coefficient means more inequality):

Income Gini coefficient for all US households

Maybe that explains why at age 92, Seeger joined the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in New York.

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