For American artists travelling abroad in the wake of the presidential election, there have been more questions lobbed their way than answers: Why? How? And what’s next? Anthony D’Amato felt this heavily as he began his European tour in January, backstage at his first show while the local crew approached him perplexed – it was the day of the inauguration, and the beginning of a wave of confusion and chaos that now accompanies the Trump presidency.
When he arrived back home, to news of travel bans and walls and immigration raids, he knew he had to channel this uncomfortable energy into something constructive, and thus was born Won’t You Be My Neighbor, his new EP that includes a mix of covers and originals meant to challenge the definition of what makes a song political, featuring Josh Ritter, Michaela Anne, the Mastersons, Lizzie No, Sean Watkins, Israel Nash and Miwi La Lupa. Listen to D’Amato’s take on Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land Is Your Land,” featuring background vocals from Ritter, exclusively above. Their version contrasts gorgeous, ethereal harmonies with Guthrie’s original lyrics from 1940 and biting snippets from Trump, George W. Bush and more.
“Guthrie’s full, original 1940 lyrics sound eerily prescient today,” D’Amato tells Rolling Stone Country. “He denounces walls and bears witness to the struggles of the poor, and he asks us to take a good hard look at whether this land really was made for you and me. It’s an important question to ask, and I worked in the vignettes of American political figures from the past and present to reflect that it’s a question we still need to ask ourselves. The quest for equality – whether it be in regards to race, nationality, gender, religion, or sexual orientation – is an ongoing one.”
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Guthrie’s original lyrics – including “there was a big high wall there that tried to stop me, the sign was painted, said ‘Private Property'” – were put aside in the age of McCarthyism, and the song, like another American anthem, “God Bless America,” came to carry the weight of optimism for some and the underlying struggle of the poor, the disenfranchised and the discriminated against for others. As with all of the selections on Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and the title track in particular, there’s a special power that comes from praising the innocence (or, shall we say, the audacity) of hope in the Trump era. “Won’t you be my neighbor” or “this land is made for you and me” are certainly not the messages emanating currently from the White House, but they are still sentiments heavy in the hearts of so many citizens who will always see an inclusive, open United States.
“I think [‘This Land Is Your Land’] takes on a new layer of meaning in light of the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, too,” says D’Amato. “Guthrie’s not just writing about the concept of America, he’s writing about the physical place: the trees, the water, the air. If it belongs to all of us, then it’s our responsibility to be good stewards and protect it, both for our own sake and for the sake of all the generations to come. This land was made for them, too.”
D’Amato chose to release Won’t You Be My Neighbor in June on a limited run, timed to World Refugee Awareness Month, and will donate all proceeds to the International Rescue Committee. All EPs are signed and numbered and available now. The album was recorded “at no cost in bedrooms around the country,” and D’Amato even made sure to package the record in recycled cardboard sleeves to maximize profits.