In “This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folksong” (Running Press, $24), author and Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli traces the extraordinary life of what is arguably America’s best-known and best-loved folk song, written by America’s greatest folk troubadour.
It’s long been known that Woody Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as his reaction to -- and dissatisfaction with -- Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America, which became ubiquitous throughout the Depression, primarily from Kate Smith’s signature recording and her countless performances on live radio broadcasts.
Among the many examples of cultural detective work in Santelli's book -- published in conjunction with this year's Woody Guthrie centennial -- Santelli traces a journey that culminates in the song being sung by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at a 2009 inauguration concert for President Obama. Along the way, he also answers the question: How exactly how did “This Land Is Your Land” become part of the elementary school standard repertoire, where virtually every kid in the United States can sing it -- or at least, the best-known parts of it -- by the time they’re 7?
It partly can be traced to the inclusion of “This Land Is Your Land” on a 1951 album of children’s songs called “Songs to Grow On,” the third volume in a series of children’s music released by producer Moses Asch on his new Folkways record label.
Asch, who had made records with Seeger and Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter and other folk and blues artists in New York City in the '40s, first met and recorded with Guthrie in 1944. He was so bowled over by the quality of Guthrie’s songs, which had not been captured extensively in recordings before that, that he got Guthrie to lay down dozens of tracks, including “God Blessed America,” the song that eventually would come to be known as “This Land Is Your Land.”
But it wasn’t an immediate breakout hit, just one among the slew of songs Guthrie recorded for Asch. Seeger also loved the song’s sing-along and routinely included it when he performed in schools and at summer camps in New York and elsewhere around the Northeast.
The genius stroke, however, came with Guthrie’s introduction to music publisher Howie Richmond. Even into the '50s, Guthrie may have established a body of work as impressive as that of any songwriter in history, but he had no publisher to represent and promote his songs. “Either because of his unconventional ways or his political stance, he was turned down wherever he went,” Santelli writes.
Folklorist Alan Lomax, who with his father, John, made field recordings for the Library of Congress documenting the nation’s folk and blues traditions, met with Richmond to float the idea of extending the reach of such songs beyond the walls of the Library of Congress. Perhaps, Lomax suggested, there was a way to educate the country’s youth to their musical heritage by including some of them in elementary school textbooks.
Richmond took the idea and ran with it, lobbying textbook publishers to include words and music to some of the songs from the Lomax collection; as an incentive, he reduced the normal licensing fees and threw in “This Land Is Your Land” as an added bonus -- he would charge only $1 to include it.
“I really believed that ‘This Land’ -- a truly great song about America, its natural wealth and beauty -- was something that kids sitting in classrooms ought to know and learn to sing,” Richmond told Santelli. “Plus, it was a great song for entire classes to sing. It had a great melody, great chorus, and those lyrics, well, they were so beautiful. I didn’t mind practically giving it away.”
The gambit worked and “This Land” quickly began landing on the desks of American schoolchildren with their next round of new books and incorporated into classroom music time.
The published version, however, omitted two verses that made “This Land” more than a celebration of America’s natural resources, but also a pointed political protest song in which Guthrie spoke on behalf of the millions he’d seen left by the wayside of the American dream during the Great Depression.
In addition to his poetic imagery about the nation’s endless skyway, golden valley, redwood forests, gulf stream waters, sparkling sands and diamond deserts, Guthrie also made a point to note:
As I was walkin’, I saw a sign there
And that sign said ‘No trespassin’
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
Now that side was made for you and me
Another often-overlooked verse says:
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office, I saw my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
'If this land’s still made for you and me?’
(To head the folk purists off at the pass: Numerous variations on these lyrics have been chronicled over the decades, even as written down by Guthrie himself. The verses here are taken from Santelli's book, where they are rendered as "Original Lyrics.")
Half a century later, when Springsteen called Seeger to invite him to sing “This Land Is Your Land” with him at a concert celebrating Obama’s inauguration, “I told him I would, but only if he agreed to sing the song with its original lyrics,” Seeger told Santelli, himself a longtime Guthrie aficionado who had organized a tribute to him in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to launch the hall’s “American Masters” series of tribute performances.
“All these years I sang ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ but never with so many people watching and listening,” Seeger said. “Washington, D.C., filled with people. Television cameras were everywhere. I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass by. I wanted to make absolutely certain that the world knew the lyrics that Woody originally wrote.”
Springsteen needed no coaching -- he’d been singing the song, including the usually missing verses, since the 1980s.
“We’d like you to join us in perhaps the greatest song ever written about our home,” Springsteen said to the massive audience by way of introduction.
No Teleprompters were needed that day. Nearly everyone there in Washington, D.C., and watching at home on television had long ago learned it in grade school.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Woody Guthrie. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images.