The Radical History of "This Land Is Your Land"

By Al Aumuller, photographer. NYWT&S staff photograph. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Al Aumuller, photographer. NYWT&S staff photograph. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most of you might know Woody Guthrie as the guy who sang “This Land Is Your Land,” the song that has been deeply ingrained in the heart of America. You’ve probably heard it in elementary school music class, besides the campfire, or at any patriotic flag-waving get together. However, although Woody Guthrie is a celebrated American musician, I’m unsure if America got his message. In fact, “This Land Is Your Land,” has a very complicated and interesting history that I think many Americans ought to know.

Woody Guthrie would be turning 106 tomorrow, and in his honor, I want to share the radical history of his famous song, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Who was Woody Guthrie?

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was a goofy kid who you could find dancing and playing the harmonica on the street corner. Which was distinctly odd, for his father was a conservative small-time politician and businessman. 

Growing up, Woody’s home life wasn’t satisfying. The family suffered many losses. From the accidental death of his sister Clara, the oil boom of the '20s that financially crushed the family, and the institutionalization and eventual loss of his mother. This all became too much for Woody, so he took to the road.

Woody walked, hitched and ridden the rails all over the country. He joined the Okies and Arkies, who were Dust Bowl refugees in search of better lives.

In February 1940, Woody was in California and was going to hitchhike to New York. At the time, Kate Smith's rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was popular on the radio. This annoyed and upset Woody. Woody vowed to write a song about all the things “God Bless America” didn’t say.

The America portrayed in “God Bless America”

The America Woody saw

Why was Woody angry? 

“God Bless America” was written at a time when people didn’t feel so blessed. To Woody, it was a jingoistic, anthem of "American Greatness" that didn’t resonate with him or the America he was seeing. America was still hurt by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. I don’t know about you, but being dirty and broke is not a blessing. 

In his travels, Woody experienced the treatment of Okies first hand. California wasn’t a very warm welcome. Briefly, in 1936 the Los Angeles police established a 'bum blockade' at the California border to keep out "undesirables." To Woody, there was no "American Greatness" about that. 

When Woody arrived in New York City, he wrote his new song; “God Bless America for Me.” Which was more of a question than affirmation. In fact, it was a sarcastic retort. Woody later changed the refrain to “this land was made for you and me” and the song to “This Land Is Your Land.”

The song was embraced by Leftist Organizations in New York City. Woody joined the Almanac Singers, who sang about union organizing, anti-fascism, and peace through protest and activism. Woody wrote many songs for them, and together they helped establish folk music as a viable commercial genre. 

Radical Verses

“This Land Is Your Land” was first recorded for Moses Asch in 1944. The original version, based on a song by Carter Family, “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine," contained two verses he later cut out, but which have been repopularized. Most notably as Pete Seeger, an old friend of Woody’s, Bruce Springsteen and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger sang the song in its entirety during Obama’s Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18, 2009.

One of the omitted verses goes like this;

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing. 
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

Although “This Land Is Your Land” was recorded in 1944, hardly anyone knew it existed until The Asch Recordings were released in 1997. In the 40’s, Woody began using the song on a radio show. It was also published in a book of lyrics but didn’t contain those verses.

Why? 

Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and founder of the Woody Guthrie archives says "This is the early '50s, and McCarthy's out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material."

McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of treason without proper regard for evidence. Senator Joseph McCarthy wanted to weed out communists holding prominent positions. During his investigations, safeguards promised by the Constitution were trampled. Think of the Salem Witch Trials, but instead of hunting for witches they hunted for communists. (Fun fact: Arthur Miller’s Crucible was indeed a metaphor for McCarthyism.) 

McCarthy wasn’t just out for politicians, but musicians too. Many artists whose work was politically influenced were blacklisted, like Pete Seeger. Blacklisting is naming someone on a list of people who are considered not acceptable. This can keep the person from getting jobs, going to certain places, or doing particular things.

So when Pete, Bruce, and Tao sang “This Land Is Your Land” in its entirety, it was actually a big deal. They sang the whole song in the face of American power… the President! Sure, any great folk song can have the power to unite its listeners, but to masterfully balance pride and criticism is something few can achieve. 

Woody played in saloons, sometimes political rallies, but never in front of such a crowd. He didn’t get to become a glamorous rock star. He was just a guy with a guitar and something to say. 

And it’s eminent he’s still here;

Woody Guthrie’s songs are the embodiment of an America where individual accountability and collective activity are intertwined, and injustice is everyone’s responsibility. I think his most popular song, “This Land Is Your Land” is the epitome of these ideals. In today’s America, it’s important that we hold onto these ideas to make the country we carry in our hearts a reality.

So today I ask you to question the things you simply accept, and what cards you’ve been dealt. Embrace that we live in a time where we can research and know virtually anything and that today we can question out loud: if this land’s still made for you and me?

Because how can we affirm “This Land Is Your Land” when we’re speaking on stolen ground? If it’s stolen, we might as well share it.

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