About The Song

About The Song

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.

This Land Is Your Land Discussion

What does the song mean to you?

  • thirteenwnet

    test comment

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000498123 Johnny Trash

    This song is about the “us” in “us versus them.” It’s as small as me and my siblings sitting in the back of my mom’s 1972 Chevy Malibu station wagon singing as we drive to Uncle Jim’s for Thanksgiving and it’s as big as the “us” who realize that the whole country, the whole world is our station wagon and everyone you look at is your sibling or your mom or your uncle or your kid. We gotta stick together, every one of us. This land was made for you and me. Us.

    • Blue Bland

      You made me think of The Day the Music Died – and singing that one as a kid

  • Ken Goldstein

    “How could it be both?” Well, aren’t all protest songs patriotic? If you don’t love your country, you don’t waste any time singing about its problems, and trying to fix it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rene.carlson.58 Rene Carlson

    There’s a a little snippet in the PBS special, towards the end, that sounds like Willie Nelson singing it, but I can’t find a full-length version of it. There is a female voice harmonizing, and it is slower than many versions. I love this song sung more slowly, almost like a hymn.

  • renata2011

    I can’t recall a time this song wasn’t a part of my life. The Irish nuns taught us ‘This Land’ for sing-a-longs in Catholic school in 1960s NYC and when we moved to the suburbs in 1963, they were singing it at school assemblies there, too. We sang it at Girl Scout sleep-overs and summer camp. By the time we heard it at protests and sit-ins and marches, we already knew it by heart. But when I made my first cross country trek in the early 70s the beauty and splendor of ‘This Land’ truly hit home: The absolute rightness of it! It means all things to all people because it is truly about the American people – it speaks to you in Iowa, in Brooklyn, in Santa Fe.

    Periodically there are movements to make ‘This Land’ the national anthem but that seems unlikely. However, it should be adopted as the anthem of the National Parks Service to help remind people of that great gift we have in reserve in our public lands. Any time a politician starts talking about selling off even one square inch of Our Land, I hope there are a few people in the crowd with the presence of mind to stand up and sing, as Arlo Guthrie would say, ‘Loud! And with feeling!’

    Thank you for this project. I’ve enjoyed every version posted so far – even the struggling new harmonica player.

    • canyonguy

      Just thinking that Woody might prefer it being the unofficial national anthem.

  • Blue Bland

    Could do a good piece about music, without all the crap about 99% ? Could you stop trying to create hatred for certain groups of people and get the message of the music. Where you have gone astray is you think that its okay to be hateful, as long as you stay mad at the right people. Sadly, you blew a great unifying opportunity. I am sure you will get lots of praise – after all you mentioned as many pro Obama things as you could in a such short piece. Did you forget about the war going on in Afghanistan, and the deaths in Libya ?

    • http://twitter.com/kraut1701 Jonah Krautter

      Take off your tin-foil hat, please!

    • Todd Gunsher

      But this song IS for, and about, the 99%. Then again, Reagan didn’t get Born In The USA and Paul Ryan apparently listens to Rage Against The Machine too, so some folks obviously miss the point.

  • Pingback: Is This Song Made for You and Me?

  • canyonguy

    Not to put to fine a point on it but It was Kate Smiths singing of Berlins tune that inspired him.
    What I hear is Woody asking the question “Is this land our land”

  • evelyn carrington

    i love it