Friday, July 4, 2008

Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"- the real national anthem

It’s Independence Day here in the USA, the anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, when Thomas Jefferson and a bunch of white male colonists severed the political bonds with Great Britain. From this bold act emerged the USA, buoyant, blemished, and most certainly bellicose. And in case you doubt the bellicosity, just give one listen to the "Star Spangled Banner," our official National Anthem. Bombs bursting in the air with all that proud hailing and stuff. Oh, and it’s so easy to sing! (I'm especially fond of the version by Lt. Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun.)

So, like many others before, I say it’s time to retire the “Star Spangled Banner” and replace with Woody Guthrie’s magnificent, easy-to-sing populist anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

A bit of history of this fine tune: Guthrie originally wrote this on February 23, 1940, in a run-down New York hotel room. Woody had been traveling the countryside for years, living with the people hit hardest by the Depression, which was still raging in the US. Meanwhile, Europe and Asia were engulfed in warfare. And what was on the radio and on jukeboxes across the country? Kate Smith’s version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Woody hated “God Bless America,” and despised Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley patriotism. Woody decided to write a response. Borrowing the melody from a Carter Family song “Little Darlin’ Of Mine,” which was based on the old Baptist hymn “Oh My Lovin’ Brother,” Woody sat down and knocked out a song he originally called “God Blessed America.” Here are the original lyrics:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters;
God blessed America for me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
God blessed America for me.

I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me a voice was sounding:
God blessed America for me.

Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing-
God blessed America for me.

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving, and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
God blessed America for me.

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

After writing this in 1940, Woody did not do anything with it until 1944, when he finally recorded it for Asch Records (later to become Folkways). By then he had changed the title to what we know now: “This Land is Your Land,” and changed the refrain to “This land was made for you and me.” Woody played with the lyrics over the next several years, adding some verses, changing a few words, but always keeping a strong populist protest element to it. He recorded what many consider the definitive version in 1951. Others have tinkered with it over the years, and Pete Seeger added a few verses with an environmental slant.

And what of Woody's great national anthem? Can we have a national anthem that celebrates the common person, embraces the idea of sharing resources for the common good, and blatantly attacks crass capitalism and greed?

The version of "This Land..." that’s in common circulation has been somewhat sanitized. John Whitmer notes: “Of course “This Land is Your Land” is now sung in classrooms throughout the nation as a nationalist song and the verses critiquing private property are left out as are references to Guthrie’s affiliation with the labor movement.”

Even watered down, as it were, Woody’s iconic tune is deeply woven into American life and culture, and reflects the American ideal of equality far better than that beastly bomb written by Francis Scott Key. It's high time to replace bellicosity with humanity. Here's to Woody Guthrie!

This version of "This Land Is Your Land" is from the official Woody Guthrie website, followed by a film clip of Woody singing it.

Happy Independence Day!

This Land Is Your Land

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land:"


1) Woody Guthrie: A Life. By Joe Klein. New York: Knopf. 1980.
2) “Is This Song You Song Anymore?: Revisioning Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’” by Mark Allen Jackson, American Music, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 249-276.
3) What Exactly Are We Celebrating on Constitution Day? By John Whitmer. History News Network.
4) Official Woody Guthrie website.


Suburban Voice On-Line said...

THIS should be our national anthem!

we_be_toys said...

I'm with you - "This Land is Your Land" should be our national anthem, not the least because more people could sucessfully sing it!

Roan said...

you should check out my hero- Steve Earle- doing this song on youtube. I love it!