This Land Is Your Land
Those familiar with “This Land Is Your Land” know that it is patriotic in nature, thus contributing to its long-standing relevancy and acceptance in American society. But such was not always the case. Rather upon its original conception, this song was actually meant to be sort of a mocking of another classic patriotic tune, “God Bless America”, which Woody Guthrie felt was a bit too jolly for the reality of the times. In fact Guthrie was akin to a radical artist for his day, even being compared to a gangsta rapper by the Library of Congress. And accordingly his patriotic song was more critical of American society.
That is to say that originally, “This Land Is Your Land” featured two additional verses which have since been omitted. In one of them, the singer seems to be scoffing at the concept of private property, i.e. an individual buying a significant piece of land and then restricting others from entering it. And in the other, he appears to be questioning America’s viability as a prosperous nation (in the aftermath of the Great Depression), noticing even back then how masses of people were dependent on welfare.
Additionally in the original version, each verse concludes with the line “God blessed America for me”. And theoretically, the past tense of the word bless was meant to point to the idea that America’s heyday was already behind her.
Those two verses, as well the “God blessed America for me” part, were excluded from the revised version of “This Land Is Your Land”. And the abovementioned sentiments are not to imply that Woody Guthrie did not love America, which he apparently did. Indeed even the original version of this song, along with those two verses, was still by and large patriotic in nature. But without them, the sentiment of appreciating the United States really comes through.
Throughout the first two verses, the singer is expressing an aesthetic gratitude for the continental United States. And Woody was not saying such just for singing’s sake, as he really and truly had traveled throughout America . He lets it be known that all the way “from California”, i.e. the southwest of the country, “to the New York Island”, i.e. the northeast, he does in fact admire both America’s natural and manmade beauty.
The next two verses feature the singer traversing the landmass itself. It can be ascertained, to some extent, that his travels are not always pleasant. But in all he delineates different types of environments, from “sparkling sands” to “diamond deserts”, to “wheat fields” to “dust clouds”. which once again make up the continental US. And the fifth verse, as standardly rendered, is a repeating of the first, with the singer again giving a shoutout to California, New York, etc.
Throughout it all, each verse ends with the line “this land was made for you and me.” Thus such of course would be the thesis sentiment of “This Land Is Your Land”. And even if the song was originally sarcastic in nature, what it alludes to is the American ideology of the land’s splendor and resources being available to all of its citizens. The United States may not have actually been practicing this, as even when this song was written African-Americans were still dealing with Jim Crow laws, etc. And it is not known if Woody Guthrie is even referring to multiculturalism per se. But more importantly is the genuine feeling of patriotism being relayed. The singer recognizes that not only is he fortunate to be an American but also all of the other residents of the land. And as such, he wants his countrymen to feel just as proud to be an American as he does.
Facts about “This Is Your Land”
The composition of this song dates back to 1940, being written by Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) – one of the most-famous folk singers in American history – while in New York City. He went on to record it in 1944 and first published it in 1945, as Guthrie had shelved the tune for a few years.
At the time Woody first recorded “This Land Is Your Land” he was not a professional musician but rather a Merchant Marine.
He wrote the song as a response to “God Bless America” (1938) or more specifically growing vexed of hearing said song on the radio. In fact “This Land Is Your Land” was originally named, in an act of sarcasm, “God Bless America for Me”.
Woody Guthrie loosely based the melody on another tune entitled “When the World’s on Fire” by The Carter Family, a folk group from the early-20th century. And the song was based on an even older Baptist hymn called “Oh, My Loving Brother”.
The Smithsonian Institution does possess an extant copy of a recording Guthrie made of this song in 1944 which does features the original version of the song.
Artists who have notably covered this song during the 1960s, perhaps the most-derisive decade of 20th century America, included The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Bruce Springsteen, who has a genuine affinity for the tune, has a history of performing “This Land Is Your Land” live during the 1980s and even released his own cover as part of the album Live/1975-85 (1986).
The Boss also led a performance of the tune at a Lincoln Memorial-based pre-inauguration celebration held for Barack Obama, who at the time was US President-elect, on 18 January 2009.
“This Is Your Land” also has an extensive history of parodies and the lyrics being modified to reflect different ideas or to serve as shoutouts to another country. And amongst the pop media franchises in which it has been used in such capacities include the following:
- Home Improvement (1994)
- Friends (1999)
- The Simpsons (2000)
And of course this track has been preserved by the US Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry, with its enshrinement taking place in 2002.
Woody Guthrie let it be explicitly known that he and the unspecified others who put this song together did not care if other people used it. But as time progressed and perhaps to be expected, some other questionable entities have laid stake to copyright of this tune. Guthrie’s own copyright of “This Is Your Land” expired in 1973. So since then, at least theoretically the song has been free to use.
“This Is Your Land” became famous during the 1950s, and it wasn’t through radio airplay. Rather an ethnomusicologist named Alan Lomax (1915-2002) lobbied to get the tune published in the music textbooks of schools. And the song, not only due to the message but also the fact that it’s easy to sing, “became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem”.
Above is American songstress Jennifer Lopez’s famous performance of “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden on 20 January 2021.