The True Story of This Land Is Your Land: The Taming of Woody Guthrie’s Masterpiece
Oringally published at Suite101.com, 2010, with minor alterations.
As you might know, Americana music, especially Folk and Blues, were very influential in my debut novel “Song of Simon.” Because of this, I’m compiling some of my favorite articles from my music journalism career. Enjoy (and check out the novel too!)
A personal note: As usual, I went to the late Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival this June. At the end of the night, over a campfire, we had a singalong. Someone starting singing “This Land is Your Land.” I joined in, remembering the lost verses. No one knew what I was singing.
“The Land is Your Land” is one of America’s most famous folk songs, and certainly Woody Guthrie’s most famous work. However, the song that most of us know is not the song that Guthrie intended it to be. Over time, two stanzas critical of Capitalism and America’s lack of empathy toward its unfortunate faded away, muting its meaning.
Woody Guthrie In New York
It was during his first stay in New York that he would compose “This Land Is Your Land.“ In 1940, After living in California and having (then losing) a radio show on Los Angeles station KFVD, Woody Guthrie accepted an invite from actor-activist Will Greer and moved to New York City.
In New York, he moved in musical circles that included musicians such as Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Guthrie was held in reverence as an authentic hard traveled singer who lived the songs that he sang, similar to the way song-catchers were attracted to Lead Belly and Josh White. His political beliefs in line with these other folk singers, Woody became an occasional member of Pete Seeger’s highly political folk group, The Almanac Singers, destined to become one of the most influential groups in Folk Music.
This Land Is Your Land Inspired By . . . Irving Berlin?
As mentioned above, “This Land Is Your Land” was written while Guthrie was living in New York. Yet it was inspired by his loathing of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie was sick of hearing Kate Smith belt out Berlin’s song, and ever sicker of the blatant jingoism it encouraged.
To counter “God Bless America,” Guthrie penned a song using the tune to an old Hymn titled “Oh, My Loving Brother.” Guthrie titled his song “God Blessed America For Me,” with a refrain of the same name. He eventually changed the refrain to “This land was made for you and me.” Taken in the context of an anti-jingoistic song, the line carries biting sarcasm.
Guthrie signed his newly penned song with the statement “All you can write is what you see, Woody G., N.Y., N.Y., N.Y.” (Note: New York County, New York City, New York State). This appears to be a dig at Berlin, implying that Guthrie is more suited to write about America because of his traveling and connection with the people. According to Christine Spivy “Guthrie intended the song to reclaim America for the common worker.” In this, Guthrie succeeded, not seeing the sonic butchery that was to come.
Woody Guthrie’s Subversive Verses
When Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang “This Land Is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, he insisted on including a stanza that very few people knew. The stanza went:
“There was a big high wall there – that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted – it said private property (note: Arlo Guthrie says the lyric is “No trespassing”);
But on the other side – it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.”
There are two other verses that have fallen out of usage. One is a stanza where he declares his independence from society’s binds:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back;
This land was made for you and me.
The other one, however, is what the website Xroads says, turns “the celebratory anthem into an ironic attack on mainstream American Capitalist society.” The inflammatory stanza goes as follows (although there are variations):
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?
The Revival and Homogenization of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Political folk music fell out of favor in the early 50s, partially due to cultural interests, partially to The Red Scare and blacklistings. But folk music came back in the mid-50s, when a few New York City music teachers dared to teach the easy-to-learn songs to their students (folk music is still a staple of elementary music education). When “This Land Is Your Land” was revived, the more Leftist lyrics were omitted, lest raising the ire of the political establishment. By doing so, they inadvertently took away the ironic bite intended by Guthrie in the original. Children– and later, folksingers– learned the song without knowing the missing lines, and missing the true meaning of the song. Without the subversion, it became little more than “God Bless America” sans God.
Woody Guthrie tried to show the real beauty of America– warts and all– the America that belonged to the working people. But like so many songs, time wore away the sharp edges. When Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen included the forgotten lyrics in his version for Obama, he returned the dignity to a growling Doberman of a song neutered for all these years.