2. Woody Guthrie – This Land Is Your Land (1945)
Published January 2019
Another similarity shared with Track 1 is that This Land Is Your Land was written in a hotel – Guthrie penned the song within a week of arriving in New York while staying at the Hanover House Hotel in Midtown.
Meanwhile Guthrie’s history ties together this urban metropolitan scene with rural Oklahoma and California, and the journey that he and so many of his fellow Oklahomans made from one to the other – one enclosed between the four corners of the country that this track refers to.
“There are very very few people today who come to Woody Guthrie by any other route than by going backwards from Bob Dylan.”
Elijah Wald, US100 interview
Having written over ten music history titles, Wald is a man who knows a thing or two about trends in popular music, and it’s fair to say he astutely exposed my own thought process in selecting This Land Is Your Land – Track 2 was always designed as a preface to Track 3 and a chance to indulge in my own Dylan fandom.
As such my nod to Guthrie perhaps felt more obligatory than personally meaningful, a recognition that Dylan’s rise and place as musical royalty may never have come to be without his prior idolisation of the Oklahoman and many of his folk revival contemporaries. However the value of the ‘working backwards’ US100 learning process is often in developing that affinity along the way: through researching Woody’s life and times I’ve grown to appreciate the critical role he played in the development of a protest music tradition that has endured all the way to Janelle Monáe via Phil Ochs and Rage against the Machine. And with that came a deeper appreciation for the song itself as a piece of US iconography – This Land Is Your Land and its evocative lyrical descriptions of the American landscape seems so firmly embedded in the country’s consciousness that it could be seen as something of an unofficial national anthem.
While Woody Guthrie was growing up in Okemah, Oklahoma, his father Charles was an enterprising local businessman, the owner of the town’s first automobile, and a member of the Democratic Party at a time when they were not America’s left wing option. It is alleged – but not proven – that Charles participated in the 1911 lynching of an African-American mother and son and that he later became a Klansman. Whether or not these details are true, it certainly seems unlikely that Woody took his politics from his parents. As well as being a travelling traditional tall-tale-telling troubadour, he was also a fierce left wing political activist with the motif on his guitar – This Machine Kills Fascists – becoming something of a trademark. In the years to come he would write songs about the horrors of lynching, and in 1940 dedicated a recording to ‘the many negro mothers, fathers, and sons alike, that was lynched and hanged under the bridge of the Canadian River, seven miles south of Okemah, Okla., and to the day when such will be no more’.
Another, more direct, influence on Woody’s politics were his teenage exploits hitching the rails from Oklahoma to California in the early 1930s. A 19 year old Guthrie was disillusioned with his struggles to gain employment as a sign painter during the ‘Dust Bowl’ period – a time in which severe dust storms greatly damaged the economy and agriculture of Oklahoma and neighbouring states – and so he became one of many working class ‘Okies’ who migrated to California to seek work and a better life out west. His existing penchant for marrying raw experiences with spinning musical yarns soon collided with left wing political dynamism, as he witnessed first hand some of the brutal conditions the working class faced. Guthrie’s 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads chronicle much of these hardships.
It was also over this time that Guthrie gained a level of celebrity as a player of ‘hillbilly’ and traditional folk music through appearances on California’s KFVD radio station, as well as through his Woody Sez column in communist newspaper People’s World, which he always penned in an exaggerated southern drawl. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War KFVD fired him and other communist sympathisers due to the pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but by that stage Woody had an invitation to move to the other side of the country.
In New York City Guthrie was embraced by the Greenwich Village’s urbanite folk aficionados, enamoured as they were by his genuine rural roots and travelling history. A young singer by the name of Pete Seeger went on to live and play with Guthrie as part of the politically charged Almanac Singers, whose lyrical themes emphasised unionisation and opposition to US entry into the ‘capitalist fraud’ of the Second World War, a position they were later to reverse*. Most significantly it was here in the Village in February 1940 that Guthrie penned This Land Is Your Land as a response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, annoyed as he was by Berlin’s wishy-washy whitewashing of the reality of US life. Guthrie’s original lyrics sarcastically read ‘God bless America for me’ rather than ‘This land was made for you and me’.
* – Guthrie in fact went on to serve in the Second World War in the Merchant Marine.
Understated humility is the overriding sense of This Land Is Your Land, in its origins, its intention, its lyrics, and in its musical style. And if we view the song against God Bless America as a kind of 1940s raw folk v Tin Pan Alley schmaltz equivalent of a rap battle, then Guthrie essentially smashes Irving Berlin out of the park – certainly if judging on the evocative factor of their lyrics alone. The Oklahoman’s endless skyways, golden valleys, diamond deserts, and dust clouds rolling certainly say more for his love of America than Berlin’s undescriptive references to ‘mountains’ ‘prairies’ and ‘oceans’.
The song seemingly follows the same pattern as You Are My Sunshine, which was written a few years previous, to the extent that you can practically overlay one chorus onto the other. But in actual fact the musical underpinning for This Land Is Your Land is a Baptist gospel hymn entitled Oh My Loving Brother, later adapted by the Carter Family as When The World’s On Fire. Interestingly the one lyrical change between Guthrie’s original 1940 lyrics and those recorded in 1944, other than ‘Staten Island’ becoming a more vague ‘New York island’, is the exclusion of two political verses about private ownership of land and poverty. Daughter Nora Guthrie has suggested that this may have been due to the dangers of artistically expressing radical leftist sentiment at the time.
Through the 1950s and 60s the music of Woody Guthrie continued to serve as an inspiration for Pete Seeger, whose The Weavers became the forefront of the New York centred folk revival movement. Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and of course Bob Dylan were later to follow. Dylan’s mass reach and enduring influence on nearly all facets of modern art owes much to the music of Guthrie, ensuring his legacy is enshrined for the ages.
The life of Guthrie himself during this era became defined by his battle with Huntington’s Disease, the final chapter of a life punctuated by tragedy. When he was 18 the hereditary Huntington’s had claimed the life of his mother, who lived the last four years of her life afflicted by the disease in an insane asylum due to a lack of understanding as to the cause of her dementia and muscular degeneration. Huntington’s claimed Woody’s own life in 1967 – although not before Dylan would come to New Jersey to be at his bedside – and it would do the same to his first two daughters in the decade to come. The relative ignorance of this condition led to his wife Marjorie forming the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, which today provides education, advocacy and research for more than 30,000 people diagnosed with Huntington’s in the US.
On a musical level the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is held annually in his home town of Okemah and the Woody Guthrie Center, a public museum and archive of his life and work, opened in nearby Tulsa in 2003. There’s even a boat named after him – Pete Seeger launched the Sloop Woody Guthrie in 1978. Of his offspring, son Arlo continues the folk singer-songwriter tradition, while Nora, President of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Woody Guthrie Publications, does her utmost to preserve and promote her father’s good name. In 2012 she and the Woody Guthrie Foundation organised a wide range of exhibitions, events, concerts, compilations, and workshops to celebrate the centenary of Woody’s birth; the Woody at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center concert saw a wide range of performers cover Guthrie numbers, from John Mellencamp to Rage against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
Bob Geldof’s band, The Boomtown Rats, are named after Woody Guthrie’s boyhood gang, as detailed in his semi-autobiographical semi-fictional Bound For Glory.
Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) Spotify / YouTube
The Almanac Singers – Talking Union (1941) Spotify
Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie (1968) Spotify
Woody at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center (2012) Spotify