When First Unto This Country
You could see it coming in the eyes of Walker Evans’ Depression-era tenant farmer, Allie Mae Burroughs, and it’ll make you cry, that razor’s edge of a sad smile about her that says, “You, too.”
You could see it coming. Somewhere, a young boy in a dinosaur t-shirt holds his dying mother’s hand and remembers that the distant voice on the phone, the Insurance Voice, said simply, “No.” He could be forgiven for fearing he’d spoken to someone he shouldn’t have.
You could see it coming. Wall Street banks are too big to fail, and the black-souled ghouls of hate radio and FoxNews tell us our neighbors’ lives are too small to save.
Schoolbooks are being rewritten to redeem Joseph McCarthy, make of Phyllis Schlafly something like an authoritarian madonna, and turn the Separations Clause into a guarantor of theocracy.
Andrew, Son of Schlafly, is rewriting the Bible, too, no doubt replacing Amos with Milton Friedman and “justice like a mighty stream” with trickle-down economics. Joseph saw seven years of famine in Pharaoh’s dream. “Merely the lower strings of a cats cradle in the Market’s invisible hand,” Schlafly’s Joseph will say, adding with certainty, “It’s the business cycle.”
Joseph’s coat of many colors is back in his father Jacob’s mournful hands in the traditional American tune, “When First Unto This Country.” It was an Austin group, The Gant Family, who brought the song to folklorists in the 1930s. Bob Dylan called it “my foreign language song, my only foreign language song.” And I wonder what he means, because isn’t Jacob’s 11th son a little like us, post-Declaration America’s 11th generation, give or take? In a dream our ancestors hold our bloodstained coat and say, “We warned you to be careful.”
It’s an authentic American Joseph who sings “When First Unto This Country.” He wears his innocence like his “cap set on so bold.” He loses it, along with his coat of many colors. Still, we should remember that Joseph had enough sense to outsmart Pharaoh and to make sure his people got his bones out of Egypt.
How fine it would be for the young man with the dying mother to sing this song to the Insurance Voice on the other end of the phone line. But that’s the thing. He did, and if you don’t believe me ask Walt Whitman, who heard it and knew the young man and all America learned it from the delicious singing of their mothers.
Look again at Evans’ Allie Mae. It’s not condemnation in her eyes, it’s defiance and a promise of solidarity. Sure enough, we brought rats with us when we came to this country, and those of us who would have made peace with the Natural and Free Human Beings already here soon found ourselves outnumbered. But not silenced.
When we elected America’s first African-American president in 2008, it seemed we’d earned a song like Whitman’s tribute to Lincoln: “O Captain My Captain! Our fearful trip is done.” Ours was not a requiem, of course, but a christening, a raising of the sails. We cheered departure, not arrival. Democracy means we come new unto this country, every day.
We saw it coming, of course. Those frightened of freedom and equality heard our singing and set about banging their pans. There’s nothing new about this. Some see the open country and the untamed spirit that makes America what it is. But others see only a place to be conquered and a people to be subjugated.
Why this song, now? To remind ourselves of the mighty stream of justice and hope that courses through the people’s America. Tactical demands of the day require us to look down at our feet as we walk along a precipice. But when we raise our eyes to the horizon, we find that the singer of “When First Unto This Country” might just be ending the song where it began, on a new departure. We’re always strangers in a land of possibility and danger, and maybe that’s what Dylan meant when he called it a foreign-language song.
Here’s Dylan’s apparition, caught among the voices of the crowd, the videoed soul of a nation singing our varied carols.