SONG: This Land is Your Land
ARTIST: Woody Guthrie
Listen to it here:
This Land is Your Land was written by Woody Guthrie in 1970, borrowing the tune from a Baptist gospel hymn and a Carter Family song. He had written the song as a sarcastic response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which he was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing on the radio. Guthrie forgot that he wrote the song and left it in a drawer until he recorded it in 1944, a recording now in the possession of the Smithsonian. As was tradition in folk songs at the time, the lyrics of the verses would change depending on the current political climate or what the performer was feeling. The song saw a big resurgence in the 1960s thanks to the likes of Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, amongst others, and has since been varied around the world, adapted for different countries. In 2002 the song was chosen by the Library of Congress t obe added to the National Recording Registry.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (yep) was born on July 14th, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma to middle class parents. When Guthrie was young, his mother was sent to a mental hospital with what turned out to be fatal neurological Huntington’s disease. Guthrie’s father was a local businessman and was reportedly involved in the lynching of a Black mother and son, Laura and L.D. Nelson (Guthrie later said his dad joined the Ku Klux Klan). Guthrie started learning to play music as a teenager thanks to his friends’ parents as well as a Black shoe shine, George, who played harmonica. Guthrie got his own harmonica and started playing along with George.
Guthrie got married at 19 but left his wife and children in Oklahoma and set out for California when the Depression hit the Dust Bowl. He started working at a radio station, became friends with John Steinbeck, began writing for a communist publication and started gaining fame from playing Hillbilly music. He ended up being terminated from the radio station thanks to his leftist political ideologies around the start of WWII, so he left Los Angeles for New York. In 1940 Guthrie released his album Dust Bowl Ballads which drew from his experiences in Oklahoma in the 1930s and also released his most popular song, This Land is Your Land.
Throughout the 1940s Guthrie continued to write, perform and travel (after a stint in the Pacific Northwest, he called it ‘absolute paradise’) but by the 1950s his motor skills and cognitive ability began to decline due to Huntington’s disease he had inherited from his mother. The 1960s saw a resurgence in the interest in folk music, with Guthrie being a huge influence on folk titans Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. The slow, fatal crawl of the disease was not able to be stopped and Guthrie passed away on October 3, 1967 at age 55. Guthrie’s songs were recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy, Johnny Cash, John Mellancamp, and many others.
Guthrie often had a sign affixed to his guitar that read ‘This machine kills fascists’.
Guthrie, his mother and 2 of his daughters all died from Huntington’s disease.
First of all, the sign that Woody Guthrie had on his guitar is badass. Anyway, this is one of those songs that I never really thought about who wrote it or where it came from, and I totally didn’t realize it was Woody Guthrie. It’s definitely not a song I would put on the turntable and have a good lesson, but it’s a 20th century classic that’s worth keeping in the public musical conscience. As far as this version goes, his voice is one hundred percent yokel, but his guitar work is solid! Keeping it simple – just voice and guitar – was the best possible choice for this song and makes it sound authentically folks-y.
This song is simple, and is played and sung without any ornamentation or frills, but it’s become a big cornerstone in American music history. Another song that has more historical than musical importance, but I think its simplicity and stripped-down feeling is important. It’s not ostentatious, it’s repetitive, and it’s clear. The guitar playing and singing are both fine on this recording, though I’m not in love with Woody Guthrie’s voice. The fact that it was a protest song is what has given it the staying power over the years.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song
Another folk badass, Pete Seeger (with Bruce and choir)
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