My interest in Woody Guthrie’s 1944 song ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came at the same time as I was reading Alastair Cooke’s America. A book by the towering figure of British journalism and broadcasting who became this country’s ‘man’ in America for an incredible sixty years, America encapsulated- just as Woody Guthrie’s song did- the land of the free and its interminable contradiction between rugged individualism and wholesome community values. Land- simply, terrain and space- has been central to North America’s history, although we struggle to give it necessary credence today; indeed it was central to the contradiction mentioned above between individual liberty and this ideal new society called America, which for most of the 19th century was what any idealistic and community-minded immigrant would make it. Independence, frontier expansion and the settlement of a vast continent were at once the accomplishments of traders, opportunists and those in search of their fortune as it was those escaping the moral inadequacy of Europe, seeking a new land to call their own or a particular set of values to plant on new ground. These could of course be one and the same. It is a deep and exciting contradiction, and made very famous indeed those cultural figures over America’s time that articulated it best. When Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in 1940 in response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’, one has to ask how he or anyone alive to hear the song could have imagined how much such a simple tune would bring that fame to Woody Guthrie.
‘This Land Is Your Land’ became one of the most unforgettable and enduring American folk songs in the history of the craft. Although Guthrie, who penned it, was hailed (mainly) posthumously after his early death at the age of 55 in 1967- and as much for his social activism as for his musical talents by the way- his song sparked a long legacy, covered and used every which way like an old folk song (which it is, obviously) that just fell out of copyright and became devoid of heritage. Perhaps, it seems, the man would not have cared too much, or at least objected. Guthrie included this jolly disclaimer in his early recordings:
“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
So we can be happy with what followed. Apart from covers by new(er) heroes of folk, including Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, Bruce Springsteen released a live version on his 1986 album Live/1975-85, recorded at Nassau Coliseum, NY in 1980. The song was also re-worked by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, a funk/soul revivalist group, which featured on the Up In The Air OST. This version included the two controversial verses which featured on Guthrie’s earliest recording regarding “private property”, lyrics perhaps out of kilt with the positive, can-do verses most people know, but illustrative of Guthrie’s politics.
Perhaps most ceremoniously, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang ‘This Land Is Your Land’ at Barack Obama’s inaugural celebration concert. 750,000 people were there to hear it; an uncertain number of millions tuned in on TV. With the inclusion of Guthrie’s two “private property” verses at Seeger’s request, it was a bold political application of lyrics that survived only on early recordings and not in the typical playing of the song. It was, perhaps, indicative of a timeless folk song however, that its lyrics, use and meaning should change and evolve with time to the individual endeavours one is pursuing and for the simple pride and idealism that the tune represents. Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ has become like any rhyme, fable or cultural piece so repeated by a nation or culture that it's engrained: its existence somehow eternal, as though the dinosaurs could have whistled it. That is greatness.