by TOM McNAMARA
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is a hard song to peg.
You could call it a protest song. And, you’d be right. The thing is, you could also call it patriotic. Now, you might hear that and ask, “What’s the difference?” or, “How can it be both?” The answer: interpretation.
Interpretation is how “This Land” was sung at Occupy Wall Street and also performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. How many songs have that claim to fame?
Guthrie wrote “This Land” in 1940, the story goes, after hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” played one too many times on the radio. In his first draft, Guthrie repeated the line, “God Blessed America for me.” His song was a response—a frustrated one.
Berlin wrote about an ideal America that we identify with to this day. It’s patriotic. It’s unifying. It’s all these things because, originally written in 1918 and revived and popularized in 1938, it’s a song for an America on the brink of war.
Berlin’s opening line, “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,” seemed to forget, as Guthrie wrote in his song, “the dust clouds rolling,” here at home. After all, it was the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years: millions were out of work and had fallen on hard times.
So, you’d think “This Land Is Your Land” would have become the anthem for the 99 percenters of the ‘40s. But, Guthrie didn’t record the song until 1944—four years after he first wrote it. And, he shied away from releasing some of the more subversive verses he’d written, such as:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Slowly but surely, acts that were a part of the 1950s folk revival like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio started recording and releasing “This Land,” but their covers also omitted the overtly political lines.
In 1954, Guthrie came down with Huntington’s Disease, a degenerative illness of the nervous system, and soon lost the ability to sing and play the guitar. In the time between his diagnosis and his death in 1967, Guthrie watched his song become a chorus to the Civil Rights Movement and an anthem for protests throughout the era.
Musicians like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen would perform the song live at concerts early in their careers.
In more recent years, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, have been the standard bearers for the song, purposefully including each verse—traditional and political—that Guthrie originally wrote in 1940.
In 2008, Springsteen revived his rendition of the song and played it at rallies in support of then candidate Barack Obama. On the other side of the partisan divide, the National Organization for Marriage, a non-profit against the legalization of same-sex marriage, used a Peter, Paul and Mary recording of “This Land” at events until surviving members of the trio asked the organization to stop in 2010.
One song. Two very different interpretations.
That’s why “This Land Is Your Land” is still around. Because more than it being a song in reply to “God Bless America,” it is a song that has lasted. Something for people to grab hold of no matter their background, no matter their beliefs: to keep all of us talking about what it means to be American.
Tom McNamara is the producer of the THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND PROJECT.