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Back to the soil

The Simpsons, Woody Guthrie, Gone with the Wind and Neil Young – and what they tell us about America's obsession with its land.

This land is your land: Neil Young in Vancouver in 2010. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The novelist John Cheever once wrote of a “sense of sanctuary that is the essence of love”. When George H W Bush spoke out against The Simpsons during his 1992 re-election campaign, pledging to make the American family “more like the Waltons”, it was perhaps this sense of sanctuary that he was gesturing towards. The 41st president's ideal family inhabited a uniquely American, mythical landscape in which good was unambiguous and true evil unknown; theirs was a mountain community sustained in spirit by the knowledge of its own rightness.

The Simpsons, on the other hand, offers irreverence and parody in place of earnestness – Matt Groening's comedy caters for a sensibility that takes for granted the bogusness of the old-fashioned, folksy fantasy of home and derives much of its humour from its subversion. In one episode, Homer decides to uproot his family to a dilapidated farm to escape a duel. Far from bemoaning his fate, he sees the return to the land as a “big chance”, an opportunity for self-definition: "The Simpsons will be reborn as a bunch of gap-toothed bumpkins!" His son, Bart, declares that he will "dig an outhouse"; his daughter Lisa offers to "weed the floor"; his wife, Marge, meanwhile, mutters: "I'll repress the rage I'm feeling." 

Where the Waltons lived more or less contentedly at the foot of a mountain in Virginia, accepting the hardships that came their way almost as a test of their national values (the Great Depression? a cinch), The Simpsons can only satirise the middle-American dream of a home close to the soil. The kind of "rage" Marge feels at the unfairness of her situation is something that cultural conservatives work hard to keep at bay – your pain is God’s way of reminding you of your American pluck, they seem to suggest, as they battle health-care programmes and redistributive taxes.

The Marge joke is funny because it has the ring of truth to it: it's a struggle when you're living in what amounts to a dump; it’s a struggle when you're broke and you're close to powerless to change the situation. Homer's fantasy of the family's rebirth – which echoes dimly the experience of the nation's first European settlers – can be sustained only so long as that all-too-reasonable anger at miserable circumstances is swallowed down (maybe with a few cans of Duff beer). 

After the gold rush

So what’s with the US and its romanticisation of living by the land? Perhaps there’s something in the ground itself. In Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, the Irish expat and Southern landowner Gerald O’Hara lectures his daughter, Scarlett: “Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything . . . ’Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for.” The folksinger Woody Guthrie had a more sceptical view on property ownership; in “This Land Is Your Land”, widely regarded as an alternative national anthem, he insists: “This land was made for you and me.” We should be willing to work, fight and die for it all, from the “golden valley” to the “endless highway” – not just the bits on your lease. 

Farmers till it, soldiers march across it and spill blood on it, landowners build on it. Miners crawl into it, blast it with explosives, sift through it for what they can use. When Johnny Cash died in 2003, Bob Dylan described the country singer’s voice in “I Walk the Line” as sounding like it came “from the middle of the earth”: “Truly he is what the land and country is all about,” he wrote. A century or so earlier, others heard another voice from the middle of the earth – that of gold.

Neil Young is a Canadian but, like his fellow countryman Robbie Robertson of the Band, he has long been regarded as one of America’s most perceptive chroniclers in pop music. He explores the territory once again with his latest album, Americana – a collection of US folk songs from Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to the traditional “Tom Dula”. Here he turns the campfire sing-along “Clementine” into a pounding, menacing rocker that brings back to the fore the death and horror contained within the lyrics. The song is about the “forty-niners”, the first wave of migrants to descend upon California during the gold rush of 1849. Clementine, a miner’s daughter, slips and falls into a river; her “ruby lips” blow bubbles on the surface but she drowns in “foaming brine” as her lover looks on helplessly. It’s an angry song and the video shows us grainy archive footage of labourers, who're probably struggling to get by.

Young takes us to the sanctuary of a song that many of us sang in childhood and shows us it wasn’t really a sanctuary after all. The lyrics are the same as they always were but the comforting affectlessness of the school-choir version is gone. I wondered how I’d not noticed the sadness of the words. There’s no glamour here, no certainty of right and wrong. Life is unfair – Clementine dies as a result of a trivial accident (her foot snags against a branch and she trips). We may be willing to fight and die for land – but what if that same land is what we're fighting against and what causes our loved ones to die?* 

 
*When Henry David Thoreau went into the woods of Massachusetts in the mid-19th century to write Walden, his stay was intended, in part, as an affront to passivity and resignation. Though eager to “suck out all the marrow of life” in all its sublimity, he was open to the possibility that nature was “mean”.
 
Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.