This Land Is Your Land: The Angry Protest Song That Became an American Standard

On October 6, 2008 at Eastern Michigan University, as the U.S. faced a deep financial crisis, one of the country’s biggest living rock stars took the stage to sing on behalf of a United States presidential candidate. As Bruce Springsteen began strumming his guitar, the candidate stood in a tent behind the scenes with his family. The candidate, who would be elected the country’s first African-American president a month later, sang to his children and danced to the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land.”

“This Land Is Your Land,” along with “America the Beautiful,” is an unofficial national anthem. But this song that presidents sing — and that sometimes is sung in response to presidents’ actions — began as something different.  It was written by a non-conforming down-and-out American troubadour more than seventy-five years earlier.

The Origins of “This Land Is Your Land”

Before “This Land Is Your Land” became a beloved American standard, it was a protest song. According to Joe Klein’s book Woody Guthrie: A Life, the 27-year-old Woody Guthrie began writing the song in 1940 out of anger and frustration.

At the time, Guthrie was living alone in a run-down hotel called Hanover House near Times Square in New York.  He had moved there after wearing out his welcome as a house guest with singer-actor Will Geer and his wife Herta.

Having seen the struggles of common people across America, Guthrie turned his frustration on Irving Berlin’s portrayal of a perfect America in “God Bless America.” Radio disc jockeys repeatedly played Berlin’s song on the radio in the 1930s. In response, Guthrie began writing a song with the sarcastic title “God Blessed America”:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to Staten Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,
God Blessed America for Me.

Guthrie wrote five more verses ending with the refrain “God Blessed America for me.” One verse reported on the men and women standing in lines for food.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people —
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.

Guthrie continued to work on the song.  He soon changed “Staten Island” in the refrain to “New York Island.” And he put the lyrics to the tune of the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine.”

The Carter Family, though, did not originally write the music.  They took the tune of “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine” from the Baptist hymn, “Oh My Lovin’ Brother.”

After Guthrie finished “God Blessed America for Me” on February 23, 1940, he put the song away. The song then sat untouched for several years.

Then, in April 1944, Guthrie began recording a large number of songs for record executive Moe Asch.  During the last recording session that month, Guthrie pulled out the old protest song.  By now, it had a new tag line and a new title, “This Land Is Your Land.”

The recorded version of “This Land Is Your Land” did not include the verse about the relief office. One may speculate about the reasons, but Guthrie may have made the changes for a nation at war.  Or perhaps he no longer saw a need to respond to “God Bless America.”

The artist and the producers did not treat “This Land Is Your Land” any differently than the other songs recorded at the sessions. Asch did not have the money to release any of the songs.  So, once again the song sat in limbo. Asch, however, later claimed he recognized something important in the song. (p. 285.)

By December of that year, Guthrie had started using “This Land” as the theme song for his weekly radio show on WNEW. And the Weavers recorded the song too.

Most early recordings by Guthrie and other artists omitted one of the more controversial verses.  The verse criticized capitalism and private property.  It evoked a time when Guthrie and other Okies were turned away at the California border:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Versions of “This Land Is Your Land”

Since Guthrie wrote the song, many artists have covered it.  The song has been sung by artists such as Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Sharon Jones, The Seekers, Renée Zellweger, Bob Dylan, Tom Morello, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Marc Scibilia.

For example, below is a 1989 collaboration between Los Lobos with Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Below is a recording of “This Land Is Your Land” made by several major artists.  The singers include Bono, Emmylou Harris, and Little Richard.  This version appeared in the documentary A Vision Shared: Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly.  A different version appears on the album of the same name.

I like the way this version starts with Woody, and then it transitions into his son Arlo Guthrie and other singers.  The song stays understated before becoming a joyous hoedown with John Mellencamp.

Bruce Springsteen has performed “This Land Is Your Land” for decades.  He included it on his Live 1975-1985 box set. He also performed it with Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger at a special concert in Washington to celebrate Pres. Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

More recently, on February 5, 2017, Lada Gaga included “This Land Is Your Land” in her Super Bowl halftime performance. As the country seemed divided in recent weeks following the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, Lady Gaga began with “God Bless America” and then went into “This Land Is Your Land.” Knowing that Guthrie wrote his song in response to “God Bless America” gives one a deeper understanding of Lady Gaga’s message that this land is for you and me.

Yet, I suspect many people who came of age around the 1960s first heard “This Land Is Your Land” sung by Peter, Paul & Mary. The trio, like many other artists, recognized that the song works best when everyone sings along.

The Legacy of “This Land Is Your Land”

“This Land is Your Land” took on a life of its own, as it no longer belongs to one person. As noted in previous posts on Woody Guthrie, his work and his songs remain relevant today.  Like Guthrie’s other songs, his most famous and timeless song, “This Land Is Your Land,” remains relevant too.

If Woody Guthrie had done nothing else besides write “This Land Is Your Land,” we would still honor him. “This Land Is Your Land” is the first song you think of when you think of the singer-songwriter. It is the song that ends every Guthrie tribute show. “This Land Is Your Land” is the song that David Carradine sings on top of a box car in the final scene of the Guthrie bio-pic Bound for Glory (1976). Also, it is the first song listed in Guthrie’s Wikipedia entry.

“This Land Is Your Land” also is the first Guthrie song you learned in school.  And it is the song that Presidents dance to.

It all started with a relatively unknown drifter in the 1940s venting his anger and frustration in his lonely fleabag room.  In that room, thinking about what he had seen traveling from California to the New York Island, Woody Guthrie wrote one of the country’s most beautiful songs.

{Woody at 100 is our continuing series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the birth of American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie on July 14, 1912. Check out our other posts on Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Centennial too. }

What is your favorite version of “This Land is Your Land”? Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo via public domain.

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