Some have called “this land is your land” an alternative national anthem. others say it is a marxist response to “god bless america”. It was written and first sung by Woody Guthrie. Over time, it has been sung by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. folklorist nick spitzer tells the story of an american classic.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Okla. He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” during an April 1944 marathon session in New York for Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records. Guthrie was on shore leave from the merchant marine, one of many occupations of his during the depression and war years.
Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, Guthrie listened to church hymns, outlaw ballads, blues, fiddle tunes, and popular music. The Guthries had been quite prosperous (Woody’s father was a small-time politician and businessman), but the family unraveled in the topsy-turvy oil economy of the 1920s and 1930s. The Guthrie family moved to Pampa, Texas after Woody’s mother was committed to a mental institution for a mysterious nervous condition. that’s when woody hit the road.
as a child, he had already shown himself to be a talented street performer: dancing, playing the guitar and harmonica, making up songs as he went. words and music became a growing passion for him.
“this land is your land” was not released by the folkways until 1951, but the song was originally written in february 1940, when woody guthrie first arrived in new york city from oklahoma. Guthrie had an ear for Virginia Carter family recordings, and he wasn’t afraid to borrow them. a 1930 gospel recording, “when the world is on fire,” sung by the carters, must have provided the tune for what would become “this land is your land”.
Pete Seeger, musician, activist, and Guthrie’s fellow traveler, has probably sung “this land” more than anyone. He says that Guthrie made good use of the popular tunes of the day.
“I used to write the words first and then pick a melody,” says Seeger. “woody once said, ‘when I’m writing a song and I get the lyrics, I look for a tune that has proven popular with people.'”
A happier man on the road than at home, he had walked, hitchhiked, and ridden the rails all over the country. he first went to the gulf coast, then to western california, where he joined the half million so-called okies and arkies, refugees from the dust cloud who migrate in search of a better life. Although Guthrie deliberately embarked on these trips in part to escape family problems and his disintegrating first marriage, what he saw and experienced as he toured the country contributed to his emergence as a social commentator.
he was irritated by the song “god bless america” by irving berlin, sung by kate smith, which seemed to play incessantly on the radio in the late 1930s. so irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it “god blessed america for me” before renaming it “this land is your land”. song includes this verse:
moses asch recorded this verse in 1944, but it was not published. in fact, guthrie’s recorded version was more or less lost until smithsonian archivist jeff place heard the acetate master during a transfer of the recording to digital format in 1997. still, it was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that appealed to the political left in the United States.
guthrie’s folksinging son, arlo guthrie, and pete seeger have insisted on singing the more radical verses of “this land is your land,” and have also revived another verse that guthrie wrote but never officially wrote. Recorded. This verse was scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf paper now in the possession of the Woody Guthrie archives by daughter Nora.
nora guthrie says she has an idea why these words may not have been recorded at the 1944 session, and why the ‘private property’ verse that was recorded was not played. “This is the early ’50s, and [US Senator Joseph] McCarthy is out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this type of material,” she says.
“If my dad had made the recording, I don’t think it would have meant anything to him if he was incarcerated, really,” she says. “He was pretty used to living without him and spending nights in prison and stuff like most things, if we’re talking about my dad, it gets very complex here. So I think, you know, the weavers originally just I recorded the first three verses, which, in a way, was very, very helpful to my dad, because we had no money, so thank goodness they recorded something, and our family was able to get some royalties from that.”
Later in his life, Guthrie lost his ability to play the guitar and sing, but he continued to write and inspire a younger generation of artists. bob dylan and ramblin’ jack elliott, bruce springsteen, billy bragg and the wilco band – these are just a few of the musicians who have followed in woody guthrie’s footsteps. when guthrie recorded “this land is your land”, he ended with this verse: