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This land, our land

Sixty-eight years ago, when oil was selling for $1 a barrel, Woody Guthrie rambled from Texas to New York, and wrote a song called This Land. Many know it as a celebration of America, but Guthrie wrote a couple of obscure verses, left out of most recordings:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple

By the relief office, I'd seen my people

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

Guthrie was critical of America, just as he was praising its promise. And he asks a good question.

In that spirit, Times photographer Chris Zuppa and I set out from St. Petersburg two weeks ago, when oil was selling for about $100 a barrel, in a rented Chevy compact with 193 miles on the odometer. We wrote stories from seven cities.

We met lots of people on those ribbons of highway. A Mexican-American trying to run a restaurant in Kenner, La. Black vets from four wars in Leesville, La. The Ralph Nader-backing spokeswoman for the Ku Klux Klan. We visited Guthrie's hometown, Okemah, Okla., where a Jewish Democrat is drilling for oil again.

Most of them challenge the idea that America can be divided into red states and blue states. That's too simple.

We learned something else: These are hard times, no matter where you go.

Before we left Washington, D.C., we met Isatu Bangura, 44, who was sitting inside her ice cream truck on Constitution Avenue, by a wall bearing the words: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. We met her on a day lawmakers were trying to decide if the government should spend $700-billion to bail out financial institutions.

She left her children with family in Sierra Leone to come to "beautiful America" in 1990. She sends money back when she can — $100 feeds them for a month, she says. But she's juggling bills now, paying just enough to keep the lights on, because business has fallen off. Nobody's buying ice cream sandwiches these days.

Still, she goes to work every day. And maybe that's what will get us through.

A few blocks away, at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, you can find Guthrie's song. He added another verse in 1945, as the country shook off the Great Depression and World War II wrapped up:

Nobody living can ever stop me

As I go walking my freedom highway

Nobody living can make me turn back

This land was made for you and me

Ben Montgomery, Times staff writer

On the Web | See the complete package of stories and photos from our series "Detours: A country in search of direction" at magazine.tampabay.com.

This land, our land 09/27/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 27, 2008 4:31am]

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