Song Story: This Land is Your Land

In honor of the Fourth of July, I thought we’d look at a popular Patriotic song, This Land is Your Land.

The American folk song was written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie.  During this time he hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York City and continuously heard God Bless America played on the radio and jukeboxes.  He is said to have written the song in a “flophouse New York hotel”.

Guthrie was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing God Bless America on the radio and began to sarcastically write “God Blessed America for Me”.  He would go on to rename his work “This Land is Your Land”.

Guthrie did not originally add “This land was made for you and me” to the end of each verse, but it was later added.

The original version had six verses.

The original title Guthrie released in 1940 was titled “This Land”.

According to Joe Kelin, Guthrie “completely forgot about the song, and didn’t do anything with it for another five years.” (Since there is a March, 1944, recording of the song, Klein should have said “four years”.)”

In 1944, five verses of the song were recorded.   Changes were made to two verses due to the political connotation.

The Smithsonian possesses the earliest known recording dating back to March 1944.  The song was recorded along with 75 other songs that day.

The tune is from an existing melody known as “When the World’s on Fire”.  This melody had been inspired by the gospel hymn, “Oh, My Loving Brother” which the Carter Family recorded as “When the World’s on Fire”.

Guthrie’s version had a completely different melodic structure than the hymn or Carter family melody. 

History.com beautifully describes “This Land is Your Land,” reflected not only Guthrie’s support for the common folk, but also his deep love for his country. The verse celebrated the beauty and grandeur of America while the chorus drove home the populist sentiment that the nation belonged to all the people, not merely the rich and powerful. Probably the most famous of his more than 1,000 songs, “This Land is Your Land” was also one of his last.”

By the 1960s performers such as Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and other artists were performing the song.   Pete Seeger is well known for his rendition of the song.

Numerous variations and parodies have been performed of the song over the years.

The song has appeared in episodes of Friends, Northern Exposure, The Big Bang Theory, Home Improvement, and The Wonderful World of Disney.

According to songfacts.com, “Anna Canoni is Guthrie’s granddaughter and a director at the Woody Guthrie Foundation. She considers this one of Guthrie’s most powerful songs. Anna told us: “It’s the most famous, but there’s a reason why it’s the most famous. I think that often people will just look at the words on the surface and not really look into what he’s talking about. But when Woody wrote, he wrote in double entendre’s, and sometimes triple. And there’s enough to keep you thinking. I think his music was really to keep you thinking and start up a conversation. It wasn’t just something nice to listen to, it’s something that needs to be said to begin a discussion. And I would define that as great songwriting. So ‘This Land Is Your Land’ would fit into that.””

In 1954, Guthrie was struck with Huntington’s Disease which cut short his career.  In later life he was unable to even play a guitar, although he continued to inspire musicians such as Bob Dylan.  Guthrie died in 1967.

The song was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2002.

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