“This Land Is Your Land”…Well Maybe Not.

We all grew up singing it in school. Beneath the silent quiver of the Stars and Stripes we were forced to place our hands over our hearts, pledging allegiance to our nation of birth. This was always followed by an off-key, stumbling version of either “God Bless America” or “This Land is Your Land”, of which I’m sure Mr. Berlin would have been bursting with pride, but Woody Guthrie would have been disappointed to say the least. If the irony were any thicker you could cut it with a butter knife.

By 1940, Woody Guthrie had traveled around the country by foot, by rail and by floorboard. Having been picked up by the dusty winds, he left the prairies of northern Texas and made his way to California, looking for any work he could find. Along the way, he painted signs, write poems and sang for whatever pennies he could get, to send back to his family and to keep him going to the next town. Through his travels he was accosted with the plight of the common man; he lived and witnessed the harsh conditions of the poor migrant workers, being buried alive by their own poverty, by the hand of the rich. His frustrations came out through his songs, and his songs have traveled much further than he did himself.

After leaving California, he made his way to New York City, where he met Alan Lomax, the assistant in charge of the Archive of Folk Culture, in the Library of Congress. He did a series of interviews with him, and was persuaded to keep writing and performing. Along with Alan, he also met Pete Seeger, who would become one of the founding fathers of the folk movement. It was during this time that he penned “This Land Is Your Land”.

Irving Berlin published “God Bless America” in 1938, amidst the turmoil of war. Kate Smith premiered it on her radio program, November 11, 1938, and as fortune would have it, Woody was tuned in. Given what he had experienced through his travels, he was disgusted at what he heard. He responded with a song. Originally titled “God Blessed America For Me”, it turned the nation’s picture of itself on its head. Gone were the lofty visions of grandeur, replaced by pictures of elegant grace, juxtaposed by the breaths of a tired and hungry nation. Written in 1940, the original title was also used at the end of each verse. By 1944 he changed the title and lynchpin line to “This land was made for you and me”. The song originally contained 6 verses, two of which are usually omitted when sung in public:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the Staten Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
God blessed America for me.

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
God blessed America for me.

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing –
God blessed America for me.

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
God blessed America for me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people –
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.

At this time, Guthrie was hosting a 15 minute radio program out of New York City, using “This Land Is Your Land” as the theme song. He replaced the two protest verses with a new, radio-friendly version:

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 a me.

Over the years, Woody performed it many different ways, sometimes changing the words, switching things around. It has become his most famous song, being covered by everyone from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen. Oddly enough, it has been used in political campaigns over the years, in direct opposition to what the song actually stands for. Most notably was Ronald Reagan’s use of it in his 1984 presidential campaign; in response, Bruce Springsteen started covering it live. He wanted to cut through the hypocrisy of the Reagan campaign and push the message actually intended when Guthrie wrote the song.

Woody Guthrie was known for his lyrics, and less so his use of melody. The tune we have all come to know was borrowed from an old Carter Family song. He borrowed tunes on more than one occasion, as was a normal practice in that time, saying “Well, if they know the tune, they’re halfway to knowing the song”.

I remember this song from childhood, but quickly wrote it off as something I would never think about as an adult. Oddly enough, as an adult, I think about my land often, and wonder how much longer it will be “mine”. How long will all this last? This immense freedom we all take for granted, going hand-in-hand with the people we simultaneously waste? Without delving too far into my personal ideologies, I think it’s important to honor both country and citizen; we are fortunate enough to have both, even if the picture has a lot of blemishes. Like the WPA, we are a continuous work in progress, and thanks to Woody Guthrie, we will always have something to shoot for.


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