Recent Comments


    This Land Is (Not) Your Land

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Many of us grew up singing “This Land Is Your Land” throughout our formative years. It made us feel good about our country and how generous and inclusive we were. We sang it at school and church and camp. More on that.

    The year was 1958.  It was a hot summer night in Texas. Duh. But it didn’t matter because hot summer night meant camp! Of course, it was church camp. My brother and I basically went all summer because Mom and Dad were on staff and working. Dad was a Baptist minister. Mom a gospel singer. My brother and I were being “groomed” to follow in those footsteps. Church camp was the perfect grooming salon.

    Mornings were for Bible study and classes. In the afternoon, we had segregated swimming. It’s not what you might think. It was segregated boys and girls. It was important to do that. I had been “saved” at the age of six when it first dawned on me that I was a terrible sinner. Here I was at the age of eight. The camp organizers were correct. What I didn’t need was to be in a swimming pool with girls around my age—all wearing one-piece bathing suits, most with little “modesty” skirts. That was apparently just too much temptation. So, we swam separately. Little did they know, that would have been my first choice anyway.

    After supper, we had worship in what we called the tabernacle. The hellfire that spewed from the pulpit eclipsed the temperature outside! It was the ’50s, so the message was about the woe that would befall those little lambs who strayed. “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I do go with girls that do!” We were warned about smoking and drinking and “heavy petting.” We were a long way from homosexuality. We had to get through divorce first. Once church was over, it had dipped below 100. We took the short hike down to the small pond for three of my favorite things: campfire, singing, and s’mores!

    After s’mores, we sang. These songs were ingrained in us. I am certain if you went to church camp, you could sing along with all of them and remember all the words. Groomed much? We sang “Kum bah yah.” We weren’t clear why we were singing in a foreign language, but we were told it meant “Come By Here.” It’s not a happy song. It has verses about people praying, crying, and probably sinning. We sang the rousing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” That one encouraged us to view our faith as a battle, “marching off to war.” Today’s right-wing fundies have taken that one to heart.

    Then there was one of my favorites, “This Land Is Your Land.” It was perky and, because we were all white, we clapped along on beats one and three. It was decades later that I learned about the genesis of the song and that it was composed as a subversive, angry protest.

    As you all know, I was a good soldier for 35 years. I did all the “right” things. Then, I came out. For the first time in my life, I realized the hard truth. This land may have been made for you, but it was not made for me. For the first time, I was the “other.”

    As it turns out, Woody Guthrie composed “This Land Is Your Land” as an anthem for us “others.” In 1939, Irving Berlin composed “God Bless America.” It was played non-stop on the radio. Guthrie grew up dirt poor. He hopped trains and befriended what we called hobos along the way. He chronicled their struggles and sorrows in his songs.

    In February 1940, Guthrie decided to fight back with an alternative song to Berlin’s. It was about the American landscape and pointed out that a lot of Americans weren’t feeling blessed at all. The Great Depression was dragging on into its 10th year. Before he released it to the public, he cut two controversial verses that accused the American system of greed and disregarding the needy. These two verses are sung often today. Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed them at President Obama’s Inauguration. Here they are.

    As I went walking, I saw a sign there 
    And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.” 
    But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
    That side was made for you and me.

    In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
    By the relief office I seen my people; 
    As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
    Is this land made for you and me?

    With those indicting verses out, everyone could blindly embrace the song as patriotic. Well, everyone except Indigenous peoples. They felt the song played into America’s continual erasure of their culture. They knew this land does not belong to the people singing the song. It was stolen.

    That back story was never shared with the little children around the campfire. They just sat there with Hershey’s chocolate and charred marshmallows smeared on their mouths, clapping along ignorantly. We were by far not the only ones ignoring the composer’s intention.

    A few years back, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus got an email at the office asking if we would like to perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We thought it was a joke. Turns out it wasn’t. The invitation was for 20 or 30 singers to attend an afternoon rehearsal and sing with the MOTAB Choir. We did it, wearing fabulous purple t-shirts with rainbow swoop. Many of the singers who went were FOMO’s, Former Mormons. I wrote an entire article about it in July 2018:

    On Saturday before the big day on Monday, my phone rang. “Hello, my name is Elder Smith from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Would you be interested in conducting the encore with the choir and orchestra?” Was this a joke? It wasn’t.

    At the afternoon rehearsal, I faced the perfectly coifed 300-voice choir and 80-piece orchestra. Before singing, it was important for me to speak to the elephant in the room: the damage the Mormon religion has done to their LGBTQ+ family over the years. As I spoke, many wiped away tears. That night, the host introduced me to the 2,000 mostly Mormons in the audience. Would you welcome Dr. Tim Seelig, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus? To me, the “gay” word seemed as if it had been yelled into an enormous cavern with an echo … gay, gay, gay, gay.

    I stepped on the podium, took a deep breath, and lifted the baton to conduct the most famous choir in the world. They had chosen the song. They sang it at the end of every performance! “This land is your land.” What history does the song have for Mormons? None. For them, it was a rousing encore to an evening of sacred and patriotic music. One for the audience to clap along.

    The piece crescendoed to a fevered pitch and ended fortissississimo (that’s very, very loud for non-musicians) with the huge orchestra and chorus giving their all—harps and timpani and cymbals, oh my. When I cut them off, the moment was suspended in complete silence. The magnitude of that moment was lost on no one—a big open gay conducting a bunch of Mormons. Then, the audience erupted into a standing ovation.

    I am not naïve enough to think this one event moved the needle for us as a people. But it was a start. Baby steps.

    We live in a terrible time in our country. We have never had more people screaming, “This land is NOT your land. This land is my land.” We must wake up. “Our” land is, once again, being taken away from us. We must not allow it to be taken. We must affirm our rights and be able to sing, “This land IS my land!”

    I’ve spent almost four decades using music to make a difference. We must keep fighting. We must keep singing. And, maybe more s’mores, too.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    TLC: Tears, Laughs and Conversation
    Published on March 7, 2024