During the breaks in Sunday’s Super Bowl action, we saw dead people and lost puppies and Lindsay Lohan driving recklessly. And then there was the commercial from a major car maker, featuring one of the most beloved American folk songs.
A slow, emotive version of “This Land is your Land” played as an SUV drove across America and across the world.
The song was written in the 1940s by folk singer Woody Guthrie. It has been rerecorded by others numerous times and sung live in various settings — especially in protest marches — probably a million times over.
It’s not unusual to see advertisers use popular songs to sell their products, often to our surprise and even dismay.
A generation before mine may have been taken aback when one of the Big Soup megacorporations took the song “Love and Marriage,” most closely associated with Frank Sinatra, and turned it into “Soup and Sandwich.”
“I’ll Be Seeing You,” was used in a car commercial. This was the sign-off tune that Liberace used at the end of his television show in the 1950s, weakening the knees of millions of American women who may not have realized that he really wasn’t into them.
Then came the commercials based on the tunes of the 1960s and beyond. The John Denver composition, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” became an airline-commercial ditty almost immediately after Peter, Paul and Mary made it a hit.
A number of songs from the bands of that era wound up in commercials, including The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and, ironically, Melanie’s “Look What They’ve Done to My Song.”
The rebels of the 1960s found themselves being “co-opted,” the unpardonable sin of their generation.
On the surface, Guthrie’s song seems perfect for a car commercial. It describes the American landscape with terms like “endless skyway,” “golden valley” and “wheat fields waving.” In that sense, it’s not much different from the “oceans white with foam” and “amber waves of grain” of more pointedly patriotic anthems.
As a protest song, “This Land” is a paean to equal opportunity for all or for the preservation of our natural landscape from destruction so that we can all enjoy its beauty. It’s an idea that most of us can get behind.
As an incentive to get out there and enjoy the natural beauty of the world, it makes sense as a song for an SUV, even though there are lots of us who can’t afford such vehicles or the luxury of travel to faraway places.
When songs have been recorded so many times, there are words that get changed, lines that get left out. In the case of “This Land,” the omitted words are transgressive.
One verse not in the commercial refers to hungry people at the “relief office,” leading Guthrie to ask, “Is this land made for you and me?”
In another verse, Guthrie sings about a sign that says “no trespassing.” “But on the other side,” he sings, “It didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.”
That’s a pretty funny line. Most listeners probably hear it as the musings of a lovable scamp who doesn’t live by society’s rules.
But in earlier versions of the song, the sign didn’t say “no trespassing;” it said, “private property.” As Gen. Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” would have put it, “How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh?”
Despite how much an advertiser might like to co-opt it, “This Land” is much more than just a hipper version of “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.