Series Blog

Is This Land Made for You and Me?

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

While hitchhiking across the United States in 1940, popular folk singer Woody Guthrie heard Irving Berlin's God Bless America on the radio repeatedly, which describes the "land that I love," complete with mountains, prairies and "oceans, white with foam." With traditional lyrics that tell Americans to "swear allegiance to a land that's free" and to "all be grateful for a land so fair", the patriotic song harshly juxtaposed the economic inequalities that Guthrie was witnessing in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In response, Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land, claiming repeatedly "this land was made for you and me."

Like many other Americans, learning This Land is Your Land was an integral part of my elementary school education and formation of my American identity. As a young child, I only learned the first and second verses and the chorus. I was surprised to learn that Guthrie had originally penned additional, more radical verses that were excluded from the popular recording that I heard as a child:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

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?

These extra verses, which were never recorded and surfaced only in the late 1990s, reflect Guthrie's personal fight for equality for America's working class at a time when the working class was greatly suffering.  

When Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land in 1940, he was already a celebrated folk singer. The popular version of the song (that did not include these verses) established Guthrie's public role as the "American balladeer". At the Grand Coulee Dam, the Bonneville Power Administration was looking for a songwriter who could promote the inexpensive electricity produced by the dam, which many people saw as a catalyst for economic prosperity in the Pacific Northwest. Guthrie was the obvious choice, and over the course of 30 days, he ended up writing 26 songs about Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River.

The lyrics of the most popular song of this project, Roll On, Columbia, Roll On, promote the public power that is created by the dam:

Roll on, Columbia, roll on, roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

With both a literal meaning (the creation of electricity), and a metaphorical meaning (transforming a poverty-stricken region into a prosperous one), the idea of "turning our darkness to dawn" illustrated Guthrie's support for suffering Americans and gave them hope for a brighter future. Several iconic American musicians have followed in Guthrie's footsteps -- Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen have all written songs highlighting the plight of America's working class in modern times while simultaneously providing hope for a more prosperous future.

At the 2012 South By Southwest Music Festival, Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to Guthrie by performing "This Land is Your Land," including all of Guthrie's original verses.   

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?


Grand Coulee Dam premieres on PBS Tuesday, April 2.

Anna Bick is a student at Tufts University and an intern for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.  

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