'This Land Is Your Land': Portrait of a Song as a Bird in Flight by Pete Seeger
[This article, written by Pete Seeger, first ran in our paper onJuly 1, 1971]
Photo by Josef Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons
The song "This Land Is Your Land," with its deceptively simple melody, was first put together by Woody Guthrie around 1940. When he first got the idea for it, "God Bless America" was getting a big play on the radio. The last line of his verses originally went, "God Blessed America for me." Through the months and years he changed it, and in the late 1940s he recorded it for Disc Records (now Folkways) in the version printed on this page which is now widely sung by school children and summer campers throughout the USA. Around 1949 the Jewish Young People's Chorus directed by Bob DeCormier in New York started singing it. When Woody Guthrie went into the hospital in 1952 he signed over the rights to the then little-known song to a publisher who now collects royalties for it and turns them over to Woody's family. Indirectly much of the royalties go to the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease, which has been set up by Marjorie Mazia Guthrie.
By the mid-1950s a few school song books dared include it. By 1971 they all do.
The song has now been used in movies and tv, and has even been used to accompany a television commercial for Pan American Airlines. Today every American has heard the song at some time or another, even though it has never been at the top of the hit parade. A few far rightists look upon the song as part of the "International Communist Plot," but the daughter of Governor Reagan of California likes to include the song in her repertoire as a "folk singer."
What will happen to the song now? My guess is it depends on who sings it, and how, and for what purpose. After all, there were a number of other versions of the song which Woody also wrote which are not so generally known. Some of these verses have been found among his papers and files. I and others have started singing them. We feel that there is a danger of this song being misinterpreted without these new/old verses being added. The song could even be co-opted by the very selfish interests Woody was fighting all his life. Clark Clifford in March 1950 addressed the wealthy businessmen at Chicago's Executive Club: "I feel the people have to feel that their small share of this country is as much theirs as it is yours and mine. . ." Without some new verses, TLIYL falls right into Mr. Clifford's trap. In other words "Let people go ahead and sing the song. Meanwhile you and I know who really controls the country."
One young fellow wrote me that he was starting a campaign to make the song the national anthem. I wrote him, "Please stop!" Can't you see U.S. Marines marching into another little country playing this song?" In any case, I for one would be sorry to see it made any sort of official anthem. A song is not a speech. Like any work of art, it has many meaning for many people. It reflects new meanings as life shines new lights upon it. To make "This Land Is Your Land" an official song would be to rob it of its poetic career and doom it to a political strait jacket, no matter how well fitting the jacket might seem to be at the time.
Here are some of Wood's lesser known verses:
In the squares of the city by the shadow of the steeple Near the relieve office I saw my people As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling This land was made for you and me.
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me Was a great big sign that said private property But on the other side it didn't say nothing This land was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me As I go walking my freedom highway Nobody living can make me turn back This land was made for you and me.
When I sing the song in 1971, I still usually end up with the gloriously optimistic verse, "The sun came shining and I was strolling." But before this I do a lot of singing and talking and often throw in a couple new verses of my own.
Maybe you been working as hard as you're able And you just got crumbs from the rich man's table Maybe you been wondering, is it truth or fable This land was made for you and me.
Dozens of other verses have been written to the song within the last 10 years. Some of them simply change a few words to make the chorus apply to Canada or to England or Australia. There have been verses sung in Spanish. There have been anti-pollution verses. I'll add them o the end of this little article. I feel like encouraging anyone who loves any song not to be ashamed to try making up verses for it. Try some language other than english, if only to remind ourselves that this America of ours is a multi-national place. I'd like to hear verses in the Cherokee language, or Navaho, or Mohawk.
The best thing that could happen to the song would be for it to end up with hundreds of different versions being sung by millions of people who do understand the basic message. If a song leader has time to talk a little bit, he or she might consider starting with the following verse which was made up a few years ago and which as been widely picked up around the country:
This land is your land, but it once was my land Before we sold you Manhattan Island you pushed my nation to the reservation, This land was stole by you from me. ----(Anon)