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Saturday, June 3, 2023
June 3, 2023

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Woody Guthrie’s family to Josh Hawley: Stop using his lyrics, insurrectionist


WASHINGTON — Sen. Josh Hawley referenced Woody Guthrie last week when he sponsored a bill to prevent people associated with the Chinese Communist Party from owning U.S. farmland and called it the “This Land is Our Land Act.”

But the family of one of America’s most revered folk singers wasn’t exactly thrilled.

Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, said it’s not uncommon for politicians to make use of “This Land is Your Land” because the song advocates for democratic representation. She said she didn’t mind the song being used politically, as long as it aligns with the song’s values.

“In this particular case, the co-opting or parodying of the lyric by those not aligned with Woody’s lyrics – i.e. misrepresentation by autocrats, racists, white nationalists, anti-labor, insurrectionists, etc. – is not condoned,” Guthrie wrote in an email. “We do not consider Josh Hawley in any way a representative of Woody’s values therefore we would never endorse or approve of his reference to Woody’s lyrics.”

There are no legal protections for titles of songs being used or parodied and Guthrie noted that the same title was used for a 2019 bill to prevent the construction of a border wall. She said she believes the Guthrie’s song is nonpartisan and that it’s an anthem for the people, rather than for the government.

“It is more of a vision of democracy,” Guthrie said. “The song simply reiterates the concept, ‘By the people, for the people.’”

It is common for artists to speak out when politicians use their music in a way that doesn’t match the artist’s beliefs.

Earlier this year, Dr. Dre asked Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, to stop using his song “Still D.R.E.”

ABBA asked former Sen. John McCain to stop using their song “Take a Chance on Me” in 2008 and David Byrne of the Talking Heads sued Florida Democrat Charlie Crist for using song “Road to Nowhere” in a campaign ad.

More than two dozen musicians have opposed former President Donald Trump’s use of their music, including Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Adele.

Guthrie’s lyrics were often political, championing the cause of unions and lauding public works projects under the Roosevelt administration.

He castigated Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement in the song “Lindbergh” and penned “Old Man Trump,” a protest song against his landlord Fred Trump, which was revived decades later when Fred’s son, Donald Trump, was elected president.

When in the final days of his presidency Trump included Woody Guthrie’s name in a list of American icons he wanted honored in a proposed National Garden of American Heroes, Nora Guthrie pointed to the song about Trump’s father as evidence that her father would “not want to live in any Trump property.”

Hawley’s spokeswoman, Abigail Marone, said the focus should be on the contents of the bill, not it’s catchy title. She attacked The Star for posing the question.

“The Kansas City Star is where journalism goes to die,” Marone said. “Josh’s bill protects America’s food chain, farmers, and national security – that’s the real story The Star should cover.”

Hawley is not the only senator to propose a bill focused on the ability of foreign countries to own U.S. farmland. A week before his bill, a bipartisan group of eight senators, including Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, sponsored a bill to foreign countries from investing in, purchasing or leasing U.S. farmland.

Their bill, called the the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security (PASS) Act, wasn’t just limited to China. It also included Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“Our adversaries should not be allowed to take ownership of American farmland,” Moran said. “Kansas plays a crucial role in producing food for the American people, and we cannot allow malign actors to disrupt or manipulate these supply chains by taking possession of farms, ranches or the agriculture industry.”

Currently, there are no federal laws prohibiting the foreign ownership of land, though companies are tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture looking at the foreign ownership of land through December 2020 found that more than 1 million acres of Kansas farmland is owned by foreign companies. In Missouri, the same report found that 393,546 acres are owned by foreign companies.

The federal legislation has been echoed in statehouses as well. While Missouri passed a law in 2013 that allowed foreign countries to own 1% of the state’s farmland — right before a Chinese company purchased Smithfield Foods, which owns farms in Missouri — for two years members of the legislature have pushed bills that would prevent foreign entities from owning farmland in the state. A similar bill in Kansas has been backed by Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach.