I was thrilled to hear This Land is Your Land performed at President Biden’s inauguration. It says many important and beautiful things about America. What many people don’t know, though, is that Woody Guthrie had deeper meanings in this song -- our alternative national anthem.
Guthrie was one of million of poor people who struggled to feed his family and survive the depression. Many 30’s and 40’s folk songs were written to protest the follies of the rich that were responsible for visiting this calamity on the poor and American middle class.
Leaving his family, Guthrie scratched out a living rambling with the homeless poor as they searched for any way to make a living. He recorded his journey in song, always the champion of the little guy—the working man.
In the late 30’s, Kate Smith had a popular hit with God Bless America. Guthrie didn’t like the sentiment of the song. He felt God blessed only a select few during those hard years and left most Americans to bear the brunt of the struggle.
He wrote This Land in 1940 as a reply to God Bless America, to celebrate what the poor did have, and protest what they did not.
Unless you’ve heard Pete Seager or Arlo Guthrie in concert, you probably haven’t heard the two verses that all the recordings leave out. I’ll leave it to you to look those up if you’re interested. One of those verses, though, ends with the line: “I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.” When Guthrie recorded the song in 1951, our country was in the grip of Joseph McCarthy and his purge of writers, artist and singers who disagreed with McCarthy’s version of America. Their fate was to be blacklisted, denied the opportunity to make a living according to their talents. They were branded un-American.
So, in a time when some in our government once again have done their best to deny whole classes of Americans their ownership of America and the American dream—when they tried to insist that ownership of this land shouldn’t apply to all Americans, This Land is Your Land was entirely appropriate.
When did we ever decide that people who criticize their country do not love it? Isn’t one expression of love for America, and all we have, the desire to make it better?
I love Woody Guthrie’s song for its beautiful sentiment about America. I love it for the idea this is a precious gift of which we are all stewards. But I also love it for Woody Guthrie’s deeper meaning.