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.

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

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Brexit is happening - so channel your rage into progressive action

Working with those you disagree with is a better solution than letting extremists win. 

Despair is understandable, but deep down we know determination to act is the best response to how the world is moving. Rage if you wish against those you consider culpable – whether direct instigators of the difficulties ahead or those who simply didn’t fight back- but it’s a dead end if you actually want anything to be different. Reviving our ability to be a force for good when everything seems to be going to pieces will be brutal. But it is also possible.

Theresa May is triggering Article 50 and setting us all on a course to we know not what. Throughout the last nine months, British politics has jettisoned respect for fact or reason, and instead become a battleground of slogans and symbolism. Legs, flags, sunny optimism and hashtags receive more credence than the dull difficulties of detail. But little will actually change as a result of today, as the Brexiteers still won’t say what they plan - because in truth they don’t really know.

Today is about prodding other governments to start responding. It is not the sign of a strong negotiating strategy but a Cabinet still unsure how to deliver on having its cake and eating it.

What we do know is whether we do end up leaving the EU, whatever deal is finally agreed and however long this takes, our nation will never be the same again. And whether you voted leave or remain, predicting what will happen is nigh impossible. That is unsettling - and holds the prospect of surprises too. This sense of uncertainty isn’t just about the detail of the deal – it is existential and internal too. It reflects the hesitation which with countries now view us, and whether they choose to work with us or not on any future issue.

It is also about the kind of country we are becoming - one where division, derision and desolation spill from all quarters towards others. Whether these wounds will be healed is another unknown. Too many are becoming accustomed to the fear and hurt this has created.

In such a mess, the first thing we need to do is admit that we don’t know what we can do as yet – but we do know what we want to do. The time for railing against the referendum has past. So has the time for Brexiteers gloating. Admitting Britain’s fate is up in the air is the first step to being open to do something about it- and asking how we can each be part of it.

Politicians are not well known - or indeed respected - for their willingness to say they don’t have all the answers. If we want the kind of politics Britain will need as Europe responds to the Brexit vote formally, that needs to change. A total of 27 countries hold our fate in their hands. We need the maturity to listen without acting as if their scepticism about our choices is a declaration of war. The same is true of the British people. Now is a time for all of us to step up and ask how we can help, not to stand on the sidelines simply shouting somebody should do something.

Being honest that we don’t know will happen is just the start. In such uncertainty, clarity about direction matters because it reflects what we came into politics to do whatever the conditions we faced. So our second step is to show we have purpose, not just a grievance. As progressives the course we chart must be one in which we strive to ensure everyone gets the chance to achieve their potential - and so one which is not defined by Brexit. The inequalities which hold too many back existed long before the referendum. While Brexit will no doubt make these challenges harder to tackle, neither can it be an excuse not to act.

How we do this will have to change, not just because Brexit will suck up so much of our time, but also because inequality in the modern world demands more creative responses – and that will include working with those who you may disagree with to stop the extremes in all political parties cannibalising the prospects of the British public.

The third thing we need to do now is pull ourselves together – literally and figuratively. Just because some reject co-operation and collaboration, this does not mean we should give up on the idea we can make an argument for a different kind of politics, country and world. It does not mean we cannot find others to work with to win it.

Today may feel like we have jumped off a cliff. But tomorrow can be better, if we are willing to graft. The fight for the future of this country was in our bones long before Brexit- and it will be in our hearts until the end too. Remember how you feel today and channel it not into anger but answers and action. Britain needs and deserves nothing less.