Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires

I used that title for a sermon I delivered in February 2012 about income inequality. The phrase, which has been attributed to Steinbeck, is a very loose paraphrase from his “America and Americans”: Socialism never took root in America because Americans don’t see themselves as poor – only temporarily embarrassed millionaires. I added that, speaking as a nation:

…because we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, we seem to think meanness is necessary…

…because we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, we accept a tax code that treats investment income as a higher good – and hence less taxable than – the wages of a laborer…

…because we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, we support a system in which the average pay for the CEO of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company is 225 times that of the average teacher…

…because we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, we shrug our shoulders at Boards of Directors that hand golden parachutes to CEOs who have failed while letting their workers crash and burn…

…because we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires, we stand by as factory workers lose their jobs and their homes while the banks that hold their mortgages are deemed too big to let fail.

Some of the statistics in that 2012 sermon are outdated, and if anything income inequality in the United States is even worse today. So I’ll keep this post short by focusing on the music at the end of the sermon. After all, there’s nothing like music for promoting a culture change. I told the the stories of two songs that go back to the era when this nation was attempting to climb out of the Great Depression and seeing war clouds in Europe.

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie

In 1938, with the Nazis rising to power, a product of the American Dream named Irving Berlin wanted what he thought of as a peace song. He dug into his trunk to pull out a song he had written 20 years earlier and put away as “too sticky.” Now, he felt, was the right time for God Bless America. The singer Kate Smith made it her anthem, it became wildly popular – played often on the radio – and both the Democrats and the Republicans adopted it as their theme in 1940.

To the ears of another songwriter, though, Kate Smith’s smooth mezzo soprano voice singing that song seemed much too complacent. The song seemed to accept things the way they were and failed to stand up for the oppressed among us. He took a melody from a gospel hymn recorded by the Carter Family and worked it into a song he originally called God Blessed America for Me.

That was Woody Guthrie, of course, and the song that became This Land Is Your Land. Guthrie himself played it in several versions, and two of his verses have been missing from many of the published tracks. But recently I found the montage below that includes them, the verses that make clear exactly what Guthrie meant. The montage — which includes Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez — is from the film Woodie Gurthrie Hard Travelin’. I’ll preface it with a quote from Guthrie’s stage patter:

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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