How 'This Land Is Your Land' Roamed And Rambled Into American Life

Mar 14, 2019
Originally published on March 14, 2019 5:26 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


"This Land Is Your Land" is sung in all kinds of settings: elementary schools, political campaigns, parades. During the tense period of President Trump's proposed travel ban, protesters sang it to passengers who'd been detained at JFK and Philadelphia International Airport. Bruce Springsteen called it "one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And although it's been recorded hundreds of times, most people don't learn it from a recording.

When Woody Guthrie wrote the song in February 1940, he was 27 years old, sitting in his room in a fleabag hotel in midtown Manhattan called Hanover House. His daughter, Nora Guthrie, says her father was a no-frills kinda guy — but also a deeply curious wanderer, who would go out for a pack of cigarettes and not come home for a week or two. So when he sings "this land," she explains, he's not just talking about deserts and wheat fields.

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"The whole idea of a 'land' is your spot on earth," Nora says. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

Growing up in Oklahoma, a young Woody Guthrie couldn't claim much of either: Cyclones, dust storms and heartbreak disrupted his world over and over. A new house his father built burned to the ground. Later, when his older sister Clara was 14, she was ironing on a kerosene stove that caught fire.

A choked-up Guthrie told the story to folklorist Alan Lomax in 1940 for the Library of Congress: "This one blowed up, caught fire, and she run around the house about twice before anybody could catch her," he said. "And my mother, that was a little bit too much for her nerves."

Ten years later, Guthrie's mother died in what was then referred to as a hospital for the insane. She suffered from Huntington's disease — a genetic brain disorder that was misunderstood at the time (and the same disease that would later kill the singer himself). His father lost everything, and Guthrie and his siblings were sent to live with friends and family.

He ended up in Pampa, Texas, and then, when the brutal dust storms hit, headed to California. Just as the song says, he "roamed and rambled" across the country: walking, hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, going by bus when he could afford it. Nora says that in a way, "the land" was Woody's home. And he did not like to keep still, even when he recorded those sessions with Alan Lomax.

"Alan would say, 'Come sit down and have something to eat.' Woody would stand up and say, 'Oh, I don't want to get too comfortable,' " she recalls. "Don't get too comfortable because you never know who's going to take your home away."

If you look at the original lyric sheet to "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie added a line at the bottom: "All you can write is what you see." He wanted to sing the truth — and in fact, his song was a rebuttal to another one. Kate Smith's version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" was on jukeboxes and radio everywhere during Guthrie's journey across the country. He, apparently, hated it.

He had seen a lot of the United States by then, from the prairies to the forests to the big cities. In his eyes, America was beautiful, but it was in trouble: He'd seen Dust Bowl refugees fighting for their lives and working people "living like rats," as he put it. He originally called his song "God Blessed America" — as in, past tense. In one verse that rarely gets performed, he bristles at a "private property" sign.

The left-leaning politics of "This Land Is Your Land" are most likely lost on the millions of kids who have been learning the song for decades now. And yet, politics is partly how the song spread.

Guthrie was pro-union, anti-war and a Communist sympathizer. He also, as he put it, "cussed out high rents ... and punk politicians." There were consequences for his career: The late Pete Seeger, who became an icon of folk music, often appeared with Guthrie, and once told NPR the two were blacklisted as early as the 1940s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,' " Seeger said. "And that was the last job we got."

For some time, the only work Seeger could find was singing for young people. "And that's how the song really became popularized — not by my father, but by people like Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted," Nora Guthrie explains. "Basically every kid that went to summer school or kindergarten or college learned 'This Land Is Your Land.' "

"That song was never on the hit parade," Seeger elaborated to NPR. "It was never played on the radio. It was never played on TV. It was a nothing of a song as far as the commercial world was concerned. But practically everybody in America knew this song."

Seeger believed the song endures simply because people love to sing it. Nora says plenty of people have told her just that. "We've always gotten requests from so many thousands of people over the years, saying 'This should be the national anthem' — because it's filled with beauty and love of country," she says.

On that particular count, however, the Guthrie family says thanks but no thanks. The song, Nora says, "belongs to the people — not the government."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in 2017, after a Trump administration travel ban caused chaos at airports around the country, protesters rushed to the scene. They gathered in support of detained travelers from a handful of majority Muslim countries. These protesters chanted, held signs, and they sang a simple song by Woody Guthrie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) This land is your land. This land is my land, from the California to the New York island.

CORNISH: It was a reminder that "This Land Is Your Land" isn't just a campfire song for school kids. It's a celebration of the American landscape, but it's a celebration with an edge, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports for our series American Anthem.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: To understand the song, it helps to understand the guy who wrote it. In February 1940, Woody Guthrie was sitting in his room in a midtown Manhattan hotel called Hanover House.

NORA GUTHRIE: Which was a kind of fleabag hotel.

BLAIR: Standing where that fleabag hotel once stood, the late Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, says her dad might not be keen about the corporate bank across the street, but he'd be thrilled to know what is still on the corner.

N GUTHRIE: And I'm sure he ate at a hot dog stand right on this corner many times.

BLAIR: And did Woody Guthrie like hot dogs?

N GUTHRIE: Loved (laughter).

BLAIR: Hot dogs, fries and root beer were Sunday brunch, says Nora. Woody Guthrie was a no-frills kind of guy, a deeply curious wanderer. Nora says he'd go out for a pack of cigarettes and not come home for a week or two.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")

WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps to the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts. All around me a voice was a-sounding, this land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: When Woody Guthrie sings "This Land," Nora says he's not just singing about deserts and wheat fields.

N GUTHRIE: The whole idea of a land is your spot on earth. you know. A spot where you can claim safety, sanity.

BLAIR: Safety and sanity - growing up in Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie didn't have much of either. Cyclones, dust storms, fire and heartbreak - a new house his father built burnt to the ground. Later, when Woody's older sister Clara was 14, she was ironing on a kerosene stove that caught fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

W GUTHRIE: This one blowed (ph) up, caught fire. And she run around the house about twice before anybody could catch her. The next day, she died.

BLAIR: A choked up Woody Guthrie told the story to folklorist Alan Lomax in 1940 for the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

W GUTHRIE: And my mother - that one was a little bit too much for her nerves.

BLAIR: Ten years later, Woody's mother died in what was then referred to as a hospital for the insane. She suffered from Huntington's disease, a genetic brain disorder that was misunderstood at the time and the same disease that later killed Woody. Woody's father lost everything. Woody and his siblings were sent to live with friends and family.

Eventually, he ended up in Pampa, Texas. When the brutal dust storms hit, he headed to California. Just as the song says, he roamed and rambled across the country - walking, hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, by bus when he could afford it. Nora Guthrie says, in a way, the land was Woody's home, and he did not like to keep still, even when he recorded those sessions with Alan Lomax.

N GUTHRIE: And Alan would say, oh, come sit down and have some something to eat. And Woody would stand up. He'd say, no, I don't want to get too comfortable. Don't get too comfortable because you never know who's going to take your home away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")

W GUTHRIE: (Singing) As I went walking that ribbon of highway, and I saw above me that endless skyway. I saw below me that golden valley. This land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: If you look at the original lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie added a line at the bottom - all you can write is what you see. "This Land Is Your Land" was also a rebuttal to something he heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS AMERICA")

KATE SMITH: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love.

BLAIR: Kate Smith's version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" was on jukeboxes and the radio everywhere during Guthrie's journey across the country. He apparently hated it. After everything he'd seen, America was beautiful, but it was in trouble. He'd seen Dust Bowl refugees fighting for their lives and working people living like rats, as he put it. He originally called his song "God Blessed America" as in already did.

One interpretation is that Guthrie felt Berlin's anthem was jingoism. Guthrie wanted to sing the truth. In one verse that rarely gets performed, he takes a dig at wealthy landowners.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")

W GUTHRIE: (Singing) There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. Sign was painted, said private property. But on the backside it didn't say nothing. This land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: Now, the left-leaning politics of "This Land Is Your Land" are most likely lost on the millions of kids who've been learning the song more than 75 years after it was written.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) This land is made for you and me.

BLAIR: And yet politics is partly how the song spread. Woody Guthrie wasn't a communist, but he sympathized with the cause. He was pro-union and anti-war. He also, as he put it, cussed out high rents and punk politicians. The late Pete Seeger, who became an icon of folk music, often appeared with Guthrie. He told NPR they were blacklisted as early as the 1940s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PETE SEEGER: We did one program on CBS radio. And a newspaper report out said, red minstrels try to get on the networks. And that was the last job we got.

BLAIR: Nora Guthrie says, for a time, the only work Seeger could get was singing for young people.

N GUTHRIE: Basically, every kid that went to summer camps or kindergarten or college learned "This Land Is Your Land." And that's how the song really became popularized, not by my father, but by people like Pete Seeger who was blacklisted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEEGER: (Singing) This land is your land. This land is my land, from California to the New York islands, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: "This Land Is Your Land" has been recorded hundreds of times, but most people don't learn it from a recording. Seeger said the song endures simply because people love to sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SEEGER: That song was never played on the radio. It was never played on TV. It was a nothing of a song as far as the commercial world was concerned, but practically everybody in America knew this song.

N GUTHRIE: We've always gotten requests from so many thousands of people over the years saying this should be the national anthem because it's filled with beauty and love of the country.

BLAIR: But Nora Guthrie says the family disagrees. "This Land Is Your Land," she says, belongs to the people, not the government. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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