Acoustic Music, Saturday Music, The Times We Live In
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Saturday Music: This Land is Your Land

Happy July 4th!

In the spirit of the day, let’s celebrate the Woody Guthrie 1940 classic This Land is Your Land. Many of us believe, for a variety of reasons, that it should be the national anthem. No less an authority than Bruce Springsteen has said, it is “one of the most beautiful songs ever written about America.”

Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land during the Great Depression in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. There’s a wonderful book by John Shaw entitled This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems. As Shaw describes it, Guthrie was hitchhiking his way to New York City when he became upset over hearing the Kate Smith version of Berlin’s song over and over again during the trip. Guthrie sat down and wrote a song in anger, but his revisions over time turned it into one of the most shared and beloved songs in our nation’s history. Here’s the unvarnished recording from Woody, with the bonus of a picture of him playing his famous “This machine kills fascists” guitar. (Note: The song ends about the 2:40 mark in the video)

As with most folk songs, This Land is Your Land has a complicated and convoluted history. Verses were added along the way that fit with Woody’s belief that the vast income inequalities in America repressed the working class and kept the country from reaching its promise. And those verses were changed, sometimes by Woody, sometimes by other singers, over the course of the decades.

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

This land was made for you and me”

Most of these verses (such as the one about private property) are omitted in the versions sung at school functions and other community gatherings, but singers such as Pete Seeger and Woody’s son Arlo have retained at least some of those verses to ensure the song’s true meaning is understood. Here’s Arlo singing the song with an all-star supporting cast at the 1987 Farm Aid concert.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings have a wonderfully up-tempo soul version that goes all the way with the inclusion of the verses usually left out. Jones commands the stage, and I could listen to this celebration of America over and over again.

To my mind, one of the most moving versions — with an emotion that cuts to the heart of what Woody was saying — is the one by Bruce Springsteen, which he began adding to his live shows in 1980. In this deeply felt and chilling version from a 1985 concert at LA’s Memorial Coliseum, Springsteen notes in his intro that, “What’s so great about (the song) is that it gets right to the heart of the promise of what our country was suppose to be about.” He adds that he sings it with the reminder that “with countries, just like with people, it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.”

“As I was walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me.”

“One Sunday morning, In the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I’d seen the people.

And they were hungry, and they were wondering,

If this land was made for you and me?”

“This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.”

In this year of turmoil and challenge, let’s go back to that promise of what America is all about, and work to make it a land for everyone.

More to come…

DJB

by

I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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