After dinner in our campsite on September 14, Sean and I wandered over to the Watchman Campground amphitheater for the evening’s ranger program. On the schedule was “Concert in the Park: Plants, Animals, and live music.”
We got to the amphitheater a couple minutes late, and as we were walking up, we heard an earnest young man singing with guitar accompaniment. He was singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with altered lyrics to make the song applicable to Zion National Park. We froze, wondering if this would be a somewhat embarrassing evening. Sean has intense emotional reactions to people doing somewhat embarrassing things onstage…poor standup say. But we decided to give it a go.
It turned out that Ranger Taylor, the performer, was disarmingly earnest and completely charming. More often than not, his adaptations were clever and illuminating (the best were “Rollin’ to the River” about erosion in Zion Canyon and “Free Falling” about Peregrine Falcons, the fastest birds on earth). He conjured up an image of a creative, wholesome young National Park Service ranger spending his first summer in Zion taking everything in and reacting to the experience by writing songs on his trusty guitar.
As the program came to a close, he said, “We’re technically done for the evening, but for those who want to stay just a little longer, let’s sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ together. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?”
And so we did.
Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to the pervasiveness on the radio of Kate Smith’s recording of a revised version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” in the 1930s. Guthrie was irritated by the pomposity and grandiosity of the song. He adapted the melody for “This Land Is Your Land” from a Carter Family song that was itself adapted from a Baptist hymn. Guthrie’s original version, titled “God Blessed America for Me” was sharper and more sarcastic, notes David Cantwell in Slate.
As he worked on the song, though, the anger of his first draft was replaced, as was typical for Guthrie, with a vision of community and hope. As powerfully shown by the song’s original manuscript—reproduced in Shaw’s book—Guthrie drew a line through his first sarcastic pass at a concluding line for his chorus, “God blessed America for me,” and replaced it with a more generous and inclusive one: “This land was made for you and me.”
The inclusivity of the song was underscored for us that evening, singing it together on the public land of Zion National Park. It was one of the most perfect moments of community Sean and I have yet experienced in our National Parks.
And this was not the first time that we had been invited to sing along in one.