Where Woody Guthrie Wrote “This Land Is Your Land”

Reading My Name is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s Town by Nora Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Archives, I was surprised to discover that I often walk past where Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land.” The picture above shows the corner of 43rd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan where he wrote the song, although the building where he lived is no longer there.

On February 22, 1940, Guthrie moved into Hanover House at 101 W. 43rd Street when he was 27 years old. The boarding house where he stayed for about a month sat above a pawn shop. The day after he moved in, Guthrie began writing down the words to the song that would eventually become “This Land is Your Land.”

Even then, the New York City street corner was busy, and the “New York Island” must have brought inspiration. But Guthrie also had been developing the song since he had hitchhiked to New York across the country from Los Angeles.

In a previous post, Chimesfreedom explained the background of the song and how it was originally called “God Blessed America” before Guthrie edited the song. It would be about a decade from Guthrie’s time in the cheap boarding house until “This Land is Your Land” became popular. It’s popularity was boosted by a 1950 songbook used by school teachers and after Pete Seeger began performing it every where he went.

In the video below, Seeger performs the song with others in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the “We Are One” Presidential Inaugural Concert on January 19, 2009.

Guthrie wrote other songs at Hanover House, including another one of my favorites, “Jesus Christ.” Using the music from the folk ballad “Jesse James,” Guthrie imagined Christ as a rebel who spoke on behalf of the poor. And, looking out from the boarding house, he included a line about where he wrote the song as he imagined how Jesus Christ would be treated were he to return today.

This song was written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.

In the video below, you may hear U2’s version of Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ.”

Speaking of Woody Guthrie in New York, a recent three-CD audio book set compiles stories about Guthrie in New York along with songs Guthrie wrote about New York City, My Name Is New York (2014). The title track from the set, “My Name Is New York,” was never released in Guthrie’s lifetime.

Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie recently explained that after she found the tape of the song “My Name Is New York” and heard the lyrics, she knew she had to release it. Below, you may hear the song.

Regarding the corner where Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” Bob Egan has some photos of the above street corner around the time that Guthrie lived there on PopSpots.

Guthrie only spent a short time living on this corner in Manhattan before he would go on to live in other places in the city. But the corner of 43rd Street and 6th Avenue will always be able to claim a connection to some great American songs, including what may be the country’s best.

Photo by Chimesfreedom. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Anniversary of “The Grapes of Wrath”

    John Steinbeck‘s novel The Grapes of Wrath was published on April 14, 1939. The book, which recounts the struggles of the tenant farmers Joad family moving from Oklahoma to California, went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It also helped Steinbeck win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Steinbeck’s book seeped into popular culture, aided by a great John Ford movie as well as songs.

    Less than a year after the novel’s publication, 20th Century Fox released John Ford’s vision of The Grapes of Wrath in January 1940. The film starred Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine, and it contained some differences from the book, and in particular the ending.

    While the book was written as an indictment of the greed that led to the Great Depression, the conservative Ford maintained some elements of that vision while also giving the story a somewhat more optimistic ending. The Grapes of Wrath thus became one of those instances where a novel and its movie version both attained greatness even with some significant differences.

    The film would go on to inspire others. In particular, the speech by Tom Joad (Fonda) would inspire both Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen to write songs. Check out our post about the story behind Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” a song written at the request of a record company during an all-night session after Pete Seeger helped Guthrie find a typewriter.

    Bruce Springsteen used his stark “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as the title track of his somber 1995 album. In 2014, though, he released a new version of the song on High Hopes that features the raging angry guitar of Tom Morello, highlighting the defiance in Tom Joad’s speech. While Springsteen’s original acoustic version captures the sadness of the novel, his rock version of the song might be more comparable to John Ford’s vision. Check out this performance featuring Springsteen, Morello, and the E Street Band from Allphones Area in Sydney, Australia from March 2013.

    What is your favorite version of “The Grapes of Wrath”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    No Longer Just “Deportees”

    The nameless “deportees” of Woody Guthrie‘s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” were recently remembered by name on a monument unveiled in Fresno, California. The song and the memorial commemorate a plane crash on January 28, 1948 after a plane chartered by the U.S. Immigration Services flew out of Oakland and crashed near Coalinga.

    Thirty-two people died in the crash, but newspapers originally only reported the four names of the pilot, the first officer, the flight attendant, and an immigration officer. The media merely referred to the 28 others as “deportees.” Many of the 28 Mexicans were part of a government work program who the government was flying home, while some of them had entered the country illegally.

    Woody Guthrie knew about the importance of names, as he showed in his earlier song about the 1941 sinking of the Reuben James. After the California plane crash, he read about the nameless deaths and created his own protest by writing a poem about the event, noting the way the media dehumanized the people from south of the border.

    Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
    Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
    You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
    All they will call you will be “deportees.”

    Guthrie biographer Joe Klein called the “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” lyrics “the last great song [Woody Guthrie] would write” (Woody Guthrie: A Life, p. 362). Guthrie, however, chanted the words of the poem, as it was without music.

    “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” would not be performed publicly as a song for more than a decade, after a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman added the music and Pete Seeger began performing the song. In the video below, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie performs the song at Farm Aid in 2000.

    The song ends with a question, asking “Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?/ To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil/ And be called by no name except ‘deportees’?” The new memorial evokes Guthrie’s imagery, as it features a stone etched with names on 32 leaves, commemorating all who died in the plane crash.

    The recent news coverage of the memorial has tried to make up for the original reporting on the crash. The Los Angeles Times published an article listing the names of everyone who died in the crash. You may also order a cool print that commemorates the memorial and lists the names, with the money going toward the memorial.

    January 2016 Update: This post previously contained a Fresno news report on the memorial, but that video is not longer available. Instead, check out this cool video of Lance Canales & The Flood singing “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)” that also features the memorial. Canales lives in Fresno, and he and his band wanted to highlight the names of those killed. At around the 3:25 mark, you see people holding up signs with the names. So this video of a powerful rendition of the song finally answers Guthrie’s call.

    What is your favorite Woody Guthrie song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Mumford & Sons Join Elvis Costello on “Ghost of Tom Joad”

    Mumford & Sons recently collaborated with Elvis Costello to record Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” They made the recording for Bono’s One campaign to get world leaders to focus on poverty issues as the leader meet in Northern Ireland at the G8 summit.

    In this video, Elvis Costello and Mumford & Sons talk about the song before playing it. Check it out.

    We have discussed on Chimesfreedom the connection between “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the work of Woody Guthrie. In the video at the end, you see Costello bring the song back to Woody Guthrie with an impromptu singing of “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” whose history we also have discussed.

    The new recording of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is part of a collection of protest songs that you can listen to for free and learn more about on the One website, including songs by Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, The Cranberries, and may others. The collection is listed as “songs that changed the world.”

    What do you think of the new version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Children of “The Dust Bowl” (Short Review)

    Several years ago, I read Timothy Egan‘s The Worst Hard Time, a National Book Award winner about the dust storms and drought that struck the High Plains in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The book is a fascinating immersion into another time describing the causes, government responses, and the people in an otherworldly land. So I was excited to see that filmmaker Ken Burns created a new two-part documentary about The Dust Bowl for PBS, and that Egan appears several times throughout the film.

    The Dust Bowl is unable to go into the depths that Egan’s book did about the causes and the responses to the environmental disaster, but the documentary narrated by Peter Coyote gives viewers a decent understanding of a somewhat forgotten period of American history that is still relevant today. As today’s politicians debate the effects that human beings have on our environment (even if scientists agree), The Dust Bowl provides a clear example of how human activity destroyed an environment. The film explores how the farming practices ruined the landscape, how the government was eventually able to effectively respond, and how humans often fail to learn from experience.

    What The Dust Bowl does best, however, is tell the personal stories of the people who lived on the High Plains during the 1930s. Through interviews with twenty-six survivors who were there, along with outstanding photos and video footage of the land and the dust storms, one gets a good sense of what it was like to live on the land at the time, as well as understanding why some stayed and why some left.

    More precisely, The Dust Bowl captures what it was like to be a child growing up there at the time, as the most fascinating interviews in the film are of people who experienced the drought and dust storms. And, of course, those people still alive now were children during the Dust Bowl era. So, the most moving tales come from the eyes of children remembering details like the dust on the dishes and the joy of being reunited with a parent. Also, because they were children, we see that some of the stories that most affected the speakers were not about falling wheat prices or how the dirt affected the local economy but about seeing how the drought affected animals. So just as animals often play a large role in our memories of childhood, one person vividly remembers the death of a calf, another remembers the community’s brutal response to an influx of jackrabbits, and others are haunted by other similar childhood experiences.

    Others who are no longer alive give us additional perspectives on the times, including footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another famous voice we get to hear is that of Woody Guthrie, both talking and singing about “the dusty old dust.”

    The story moves along briskly and is engaging throughout. The episodes were written by Dayton Duncan, who has worked with director Ken Burns on other series like The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz. I have been a fan of Duncan’s since the late 1980’s when I discovered his book Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail (1988), where Duncan recounted his own modern road trip tracing Lewis and Clark’s famous travels. When I saw that he was working with Director Ken Burns years ago, I was glad that Burns found such a good writer.

    If you enjoy Ken Burns’s other work, such as The Civil War, you probably already know whether you want to see The Dust Bowl or have already seen it. I am a fan of all of his work. But even if you have not seen his other work, you might find The Dust Bowl engaging because its first-person accounts provide an entertaining living history and a living warning about our times. Check your local PBS stations for reruns of The Dust Bowl, which is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. In the video below, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan discuss the series.

    Another Review Because Why Should You Trust Me?: For a different view on The Dust Bowl, check out “Burns’ ‘Dust Bowl’ speaks to our times, but it’s dry” from David Wiegand.

    What did you think of The Dust Bowl? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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