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 latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”