Since we’re in the midst of the Fourth of July weekend, I thought this Sunday’s musical selection should be something with a definite American flavor. The song is This Land Is Your Land from the great Woody Guthrie.
You are no doubt familiar with this song, probably thinking of it as a cheery, upbeat song about the beauty and breadth of our democracy, sung often by smiling church and school choruses. It’s become a kind of populist national anthem which is sort of ironic given its beginnings and the words of the song. You see, there are verses that are seldom sung by the choruses and flag waving nationalists, verses that very much change the tone and meaning of the song.
Guthrie wrote the song in the late 1930’s in response to the immense popularity at that time of the Kate Smith version of God Bless America, written by Irving Berlin. Guthrie saw the world coming apart due to the nationalistic extremism that had spread through Europe, producing fascist leaders such as Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain.
The original intro to God Bless America had the lines: While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful that we’re far from there, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. That phrase that we’re far from there was later changed to for a land so fair. Guthrie saw it as a call to an isolated form of nationalism, one that cast a blind eye to the perils lurking abroad that were beginning to spread here as well as our own problems at home. Problems like poverty and inequality.
Guthrie wanted to address these problems in his retort to Berlin’s song. At first, Guthrie sarcastically called his song God Blessed America For Me before naming it This Land Is Your Land.
Below are the two verses in the original version of This Land Is Your Land that are always omitted from those cheery civic versions speak to the ills of this country as Guthrie saw them, most noticeably the greed which led to the great chasm of inequality between the wealthy and the poor of this land. He questioned how a land with so much wealth and beauty, one based on the equality of man, could tolerate the extreme poverty and injustice he saw in his travels across this land.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and 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.
It’s an interesting song that speaks to this crazy time in the world as blind nationalism rises abroad and here in the USA. Give a listen to this wonderful version of the song from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and pay special attention to the words. Have a great Sunday and a great 4th.