“This Land is Your Land” Almost Wasn’t.
As the original manuscript reveals, Woody Guthrie wrote the populist American anthem This Land is Your Land 80 years ago, February 23rd, in a flop house in midtown Manhattan. It was another four years before he recorded, a full decade until it was published, then finally popularized in the mid-1950’s by fellow traveler Pete Seeger and his group The Weavers.
In the decades since, dozens of artists, from Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio to Bing Crosby and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have recorded the song. Bruce Springsteen called it “the greatest song every written about our home.” In January 2009, Seeger and Springsteen performed This Land is Your Land at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert.
But the inspiration for the song’s title wasn’t Guthrie’s experiences in California migrant camps. The credit belongs to singer Kate Smith and producer Irving Berlin for their hit God Bless America, released in 1938 then number three on the pop charts the following year. The 1940 presidential campaigns of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie used it as their official campaign songs.
Guthrie heard the song often. Pete Seeger speculated on Guthrie’s cross-country trek to New York in the winter of 1940, “Woody was hitchhiking through Pennsylvania in the freezing cold. But if he had a nickel he’d go into a roadside dinner, get on a cup of coffee, and the juke box was playing God Bless America.”
Guthrie hated that song, says Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “When Woody hears this song he’s thinking, ‘where are my people?’ ”
Those people, his people, appear in the closing stanza of his original manuscript, on display at the Guthrie Center:
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.
Guthrie’s original title, God Blessed America, was a sarcastic rebuttal to the Berlin/Smith prayer to the Almighty. “There could be no unearthly solutions to earthly problems,” wrote Will Kaufman in his musical biography Woody Guthrie, American Radical.
Thankfully for our American songbook, Guthrie wasn’t satisfied. The sarcasm was dropped, replaced in each stanza by affirming This Land was Made for You and Me.
If the “Relief Office” reference is unfamiliar, it’s because that stanza wasn’t usually taught to young children in sing-alongs. And there’s another verse also overlooked:
Was a big 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/This land was made for you and me.”
Neither verse was included in the 1945 publication Ten of Woody Guthrie’s Songs. So, McCloud recalls, “we didn’t learn those verses growing up.”
Why? The rabid anti-Communist climate of the time was a contributing factor. “It got to the point there for a few years where it was difficult to tell where folk music ended and Communism began,” quipped country singer Tex Ritter.
Still, Guthrie’s anthem has more than once been a suggested replacement for the United States National Anthem. Pete Seeger, who made a point for decades of including all of the song’s verses in his performances, rejected that idea. “The best thing that could happen to the song would be for it to end up with hundreds of different versions being sung by millions of people who do understand the basic message,” he said.
It happened. Wikipedia lists versions from nine different countries. Even Lisa Simpson adapts the lyrics singing, This log is my log, this log is your log in a year 2000 Simpson’s episode about a giant runaway redwood tree.
The fact that Woody wrote ANY song after that winter of 1940 was a near miracle, according to author Ed Cray in his biography Ramblin’ Man. On his hitchhiking trek to New York City, Guthrie nearly froze to death along U.S. 22 in Pennsylvania. He was found in a snowbank by a passing forest ranger who drove Guthrie to his parents’ house for the evening. Guthrie later said, “I had really given up all hopes of ever seeing any human beings alive on this planet anymore.”
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie died on October 3, 1967. He was afflicted with Huntington’s Disease, and weighed less than 100 pounds at his death. He had lost his voice two year’s earlier. But he still speaks, even today:
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.
To mark the 80th anniversary of This Land is Your Land, the Woody Guthrie Center will host a benefit concert on Sunday, Feb. 23 at the Town Hall in New York City, near the Hanover House, where Guthrie wrote the song.