On October 31, 1941, the USS Reuben James was torpedoed by a German U-552 submarine near Iceland. At the time, the Reuben James was part of the Neutrality Patrol that guarded ships making passage between the Americas and the U.K. Within around five minutes, the entire ship went down. Different sources vary, but approximately 115 of the 160 men aboard died.
The Almanac Singers
Around this time, Woody Guthrie was playing with a group called The Almanac Singers, which also included Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays. The group had recorded songs about civil rights and unions, and they had previously recorded a song critical of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s peacetime draft.
But in reaction to the sinking of the Reuben James and the attack on Pearl Harbor less than two months later, the Almanac singers released an album in 1942 supporting the U.S. war effort. One of the songs was about the Reuben James.
Woody Guthrie’s Drafts of “The Sinking of the Reuben James”
When Guthrie began writing “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” his initial plan was to humanize the tragedy by listing all of the victims of the tragedy. His original version included lists of names as well as some details about some of the men: “There’s Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea/ From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree.” (Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, at 216.)
Guthrie took a draft of his song to a meeting with The Almanac Singers. They agreed he had a great idea for a song, but they wondered if listing all of the names made the song a little boring. Seeger suggested that Guthrie try describing the event in detail while adding a rousing chorus that would get across the same message.
Guthrie went back and reworked the verses, while Seeger and Lampell worked on the chorus, personalizing the song without listing the names by asking the listener: “Tell me, what were their names?/ Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James.” Below is Guthrie’s solo version of the song they wrote.
Note that in the above version he asks “what was their names” instead of using “were” as in other versions as well as in the official Guthrie lyrics.
The Music for “The Sinking of the Reuben James”
Regarding the music for the song, Guthrie set the verses to the tune from “Wildwood Flower” by The Carter Family.
“The Sinking of the Reuben James” became one of the Almanac Singers’ best-known songs. But despite the patriotic tone of this song and other ones they released at the time, the Almanac Singers continued to be harassed for their earlier anti-war stance and they disbanded within about a year.
“The Sinking of the Reuben James” was officially listed as being written by “The Almanac Singers.” But in later years Seeger graciously gave credit to Guthrie for both the verses and the chorus.
On August 23, 1927, Massachusetts executed Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti. The two admitted anarchists were Italian immigrants executed for the 1921 murder of a person during an armed robbery of a shoe company paymaster.
The Trial and Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
The fish-peddler and shoemaker had no prior criminal record when they were arrested for the murder. But they were prosecuted during a period of anti-immigrant and anti-radical sentiment, and many aspects of their trial were unfair.
The judge overseeing the proceedings saw the two men as “anarchist bastards,” but others rallied in support of the accused. At the time of their execution, protests were held at many places around the U.S.
Many still believe to this day that the two men were innocent of the crime. Also, there have been recent arguments that only Vanzetti was innocent. There is a Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society that works to keep the case in the public eye, and there is an exhibit about the case at the courthouse in Massachusetts.
Woody Guthrie and “Two Good Men”
Many years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, folk-singer Woody Guthrie found some kinship in the plight of the two men. In the mid-1940s, he worked on a project of several songs about Sacco and Vanzetti to tell their story.
One of the songs in the cycle is “Two Good Men.”
Like Guthrie’s song about “Tom Joad,” which we discussed previously, “Two Good Men” is a story song. “Two Good Men” focuses on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. Although the song is not as complete and detailed as “Tom Joad,” it contains many details.
Some of the details in the song include the names of the judge (Webster Thayer) and the people who prosecuted the two men: “I’ll tell you the prosecutors’ names,/ Katsman, Adams, Williams, Kane.”
In addition to the details of the case, in “Two God Men” Guthrie also focuses on connecting the execution to the labor movement of his day: All you people ought to be like me, And work like Sacco and Vanzetti; And every day find some ways to fight On the union side for workers’ rights.
Supposedly, Guthrie was unsatisfied with his cycle of songs about Sacco and Vanzetti. Eventually, he gave up on the project.
Fortunately Guthrie’s songs about Sacco and Vanzetti were not lost. The founder of Folkway Records Moe Asch, who had commissioned the songs, went ahead and released the unfinished product.
Guthrie was probably right that “Two Good Men” and the other songs did not live up to his best work. I prefer folksinger Charlie King’s song about Sacco and Vanzetti with a similar name, “Two Good Arms.” But Guthrie also was right that we should continue to remember and fight against injustices.
Woody Guthrie was born 100 years ago this Saturday, July 14, 1912. Perhaps the best one-sentence summary of Guthrie’s work came from Bob Dylan. In the documentary No Direction Home, Dylan described when he first heard Woody Guthrie’s music, “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.”
As regular Chimesfreedom readers know, we have been discussing Guthrie’s life and music for several months in anticipation of his centennial birthday. Check out some of the most recent posts about Guthrie below and watch for more upcoming posts the rest of the year too. Happy birthday Woody.
“Peace Call” is one of Woody Guthrie’s lesser-known songs, perhaps because it was lost for awhile. I discovered the song not too long ago on the excellent Guthrie tribute CD, Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway (2008).
The CD is a live recording of performances of Guthrie’s songs and songs in his spirit, inter-cut with some narration of quotes from Guthrie. And all of the performances are great, perhaps because the organizers sought out performers who capture Guthrie’s spirit instead of going for big-name artists, although there are names you may recognize like Pete Seeger, Ellis Paul, and Slaid Cleaves.
One of the many highlights on the CD is singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson‘s performance of “Peace Call.” Guthrie’s lyrics had survived in his archives. But if he wrote music for the song, it was lost when he died.
So Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, asked Gilkyson to put music to the words. And Gilkyson did an excellent job. The song contains some of Guthrie’s most beautiful lyrics, reminding us how he was a genius with the language.
I’ll clear my house of the weeds of fear, And turn to the friends around me; With my smile of peace, I’ll greet you one and all; I’ll work, I’ll fight, I’ll sing and dance, Of peace of the youthful spirit; Get ready for my bugle call of peace.
The artists from the Ribbon of Highway CD performed the songs on tour together. So, here is Gilkyson performing the song on December 12, 2008 at the University of Texas’ Union Ballroom in Austin, Texas. Other artists join her, including Joel Rafael, Ray Bonneville, Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Kevin Welch, and Michael Fracasso.
If you do not know this wonderful song, check it out below.
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.
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.