Oklahoman Woody Guthrie trekked across the country and, with the journey still fresh on his mind, crafted “This Land is Your Land” on Feb. 23, 1940.
The Woody Guthrie Center in the Tulsa Arts District will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the enduring song by hosting a Sunday, Feb. 23, concert at the Town Hall in New York City. One of the performers, John Fullbright, is from Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, and the concert venue is near the Hanover House, a hotel where Guthrie lived for a few weeks when he wrote “This Land is Your Land.”
Guthrie was spurred to write the song after repeatedly hearing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s reaction song was originally called “God Blessed America for Me” before he revised it to “This Land is Your Land.”
More to the story? Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, provided insight during a phone interview in advance of the anniversary show.
The interview began with this question: Before writing the song, what do you think Woody was seeing when he made his way across the country?
“When you read the lyrics, if you forget Woody Guthrie and the whole myth, the whole hoopla, and if you just look at the lyrics and you just imagine that anybody wrote it, it’s basically a description of traveling across the country in a specific time,” she said, adding that she has always approached the song as more of a journal than an anthem.
She said her father always wrote “all you can write is what you see” at the bottom of lyrics. He wrote those at the bottom of “This Land is Your Land.”
“So you have to take that as his starting point,” she said. “He saw wheat fields waving. He saw diamond deserts. He saw churches that were giving food out to hungry people. He saw signs that said ‘no trespassing’ or ‘private property.’ So you have to take it all, based on his M.O., that it is exactly what he saw. And the fact that he wrote it within two weeks of having crossed the country kind of is further evidence that’s the way to really look at the song.”
If you look at other songs Woody wrote around the same time he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” the common denominator, according to Nora, is this: I have just come to New York and this is what I am thinking about, period.
“This Land is Your Land” sat dormant until 1944, when Woody finally recorded it. He hardly recorded it at all, according to Nora, who said there are only two recordings of her father singing it, and he doesn’t tackle the entire song in either version.
The song didn’t gain popularity until the 1950s, when it was first published in a songbook used by public school teachers, according to “My Name is New York,” Nora’s audiobook about Woody’s New York experiences.
The song evolved as history evolved. Credit folk singer and activist Pete Seeger for facilitating the evolution. Seeger started singing it during the “blacklisting” era, and he sang all the verses instead of the shortened and tamed-down version of the song.
All the verses? There are more?
The “extra” verses reference no-trespassing signs/private property and hungry people at the “relief office.” Maybe you could call them political. Nora used the term “observational.”
“Have you ever driven across the country?” she asked. “I used to drive back and forth all the time. At that point, there were so many private property signs you couldn’t get to a beach. You couldn’t get to a lake because everybody owned property on the lake. This was in the ’70s. I remember thinking, gosh, maybe that’s what Woody meant in a way. Here is this pretty lake and nobody can swim in it except these 10 families. It just didn’t seem quite right ...
“I think that was kind of Woody’s observation as he traveled is there were a lot of places you couldn’t go. And then there were places you could go. And he was only 27, by the way, when he wrote it. So I think this was kind of brewing in his mind. Why can’t I swim in that lake? Why can I walk here, but I can’t walk there?”
Regardless, Seeger added “a lot of notoriety and meaning” to the song and additional meaning built up after Bob Dylan hopped aboard, according to Nora. Remember those kids who were introduced to “This Land is Your Land” at school?
“They all knew (the song) and when the rallies started taking place with the anti-Vietnam War stuff, it kind of became the voice of that generation,” Nora said. “And Pete Seeger is the one who taught it to them. And that’s what I mean when I say it kind of evolved. Woody didn’t have much to do with it other than writing the song. And it’s kind of funny. A lot of people say, ‘How come you leave out certain verses ...?’ And I kind of have to laugh. Woody is the one who kind of left it out because he never recorded (the full version). So that’s kind of curious, right?”
God Bless America
Irving Berlin wrote the patriotic song “God Bless America” while serving during World War I. Smith turned the song into a top-10 hit in 1939.
Haven’t all of us been burned out by the overplaying of a song on the radio? Guthrie must have heard “God Bless America” a heck of a lot of times to be so irked that he would write a song in response.
Nora said her father acknowledged mixed feelings about “God Bless America.”
“At the time, the reason that it was on the radio was because the government was preparing the country for war,” she said. “It was written years before, and it was put in a trunk and then it was taken out by the government and (re-recorded) because the government was building a case for joining World War II. So at that point, he was very concerned, skeptical and worried that the Irving Berlin song was being used to propagandize the country into war. As it turned out, when FDR did declare war after Pearl Harbor, Woody was all for it and joined the Merchant Marine and participated in the war effort for three years.”
Another reason “God Bless America” presented a dilemma for Woody is that things mentioned in the song were contradictory to what he was seeing on the road, according to Nora. Is America blessed for everyone?
Eighty years later
In 2020, what does “This Land is Your Land” mean to the daughter of the man who wrote it?
“I think it’s a vision,” she said. “I think it’s a young man’s vision of what could be, what should be. Not that it ever was this exactly, but my feeling being raised with this song and being raised with this person was he gave us something to strive for. And whether we achieve that and how soon we achieve that or not, it’s like you can’t really pick it apart. It’s just something you keep reaching for and the phrase ‘this land was made for you and me’ keeps evolving.”
In the 1940s, the line might have been speaking to farmers who lost homes in the Dust Bowl or people who lost everything in the Great Depression. As years passed, other groups of people, including minorities, have felt the line’s embrace. Or, as Nora put it, come sit at the table.
“I think that line is great because it’s not too specific and it gives all of us a chance to be included as we choose to,” Nora said, adding that people have taken up “This Land is Your Land” at certain times in history when those people felt like they needed a song to represent them.
She said it was “so perfect” when Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed the song at Barack Obama’s inauguration, and they were backed by a multicultural youth choir.
“That was like the high point for me,” she said. “I looked up and I said, ‘Dad, now I know why you wrote this song.’ ”