Artist: Woody Guthrie
Title: This Land Is Your Land
Description: recording; track This Land Is Your Land
Release date: (recorded) 1944; 1967
First heard: 1998
There are some entries on my insoluble identity crisis of a CV that I have no actual record of. One of them is a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that I presented in the year 2000 called Harry Smith and the Folk Anthology. Even typing the words, I wonder if perhaps it ever happened at all, and if it did, why was I selected to link such an august-sounding music programme? Some kind of administrative error? (I’ve looked it up at the BBC Genome archive and there it is, produced by David Morley: it aired on 7 September 2000 at 11.30am, repeated on 1 May 2001 at 1.30 in the afternoon.) I wish I had a copy, but this was an ancient time before the emailing of compressed sound files was commonplace. Harry Smith was one of those amazing, tireless cultural historians, an eccentric hippie in fact, who collected out-of-print field recordings from the 1920s and 30s of the folk music of the United States of America, made at an ancient time when its transmission was still essentially oral. (Many of the recordings were made at social gatherings, not even concerts.) The resulting, six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music was released in 1952. Its influence is in music’s very blood.
To be fair to myself, having been unfair to myself, I had announced myself as Billy Bragg’s official biographer by the fag-end of the century, and in the same year as the biography’s publication, 1998, he’d also announced himself as the living musical executor of Woody Guthrie’s legend, anointed by the Guthrie estate, via his daughter Nora, to bring a whole tranche of the leftist American folk icon’s lyrics to life, with the band Wilco, packaged as the Mermaid Avenue sessions. My link to Woody Guthrie may have been at one remove, but that was as close as I’d ever been. I channeled his limited extant repertoire while writing and researching my book via a 1993 compilation album The Very Best Of Woody Guthrie, and read Joe Klein’s definitive biography.
In the same way that the early recordings of Robert Johnson had captivated me from across the decades in the early 90s – I was driven to purchase after reading the early, inspirational chapters of Charles Shaar Murray’s Hendrix biography Crosstown Traffic, which traces Jimi’s place in the firmament back to Johnson at the crossroads – this scratchy stand-up-and-be-counted dustbowl folk quickly had its hooks in me. I usually risk the sin of generalisation and say that popular music doesn’t truly get going for me until the early 60s girl groups and the drone of garage rock, but that’s too exclusive. For a start, my favourite patch from around 80 years of recorded movie scores has to be the 1930s and 40s, the great age of Waxman, Korngold, Steiner and Newman. And This Land Is Your Land, for all of its elemental timelessness, anthemic credential and iron durability, is best known as a 1944 recording by Folkways boss Moses Asch of a song written in 1940 – to all intents and purposes the 1930s! – in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. I’m listening to it right now.
As a child raised on the sound of 8- and 16-track recordings who lived through the technological revolution of MIDI and Roland and Linn at a formative age, I was hardwired not to appreciate the sound of one man with a guitar on his knee in a booth singing folk songs in the year before D-Day. But Woody – and it feels perfectly OK to call him Woody – spoke to me.
The context helps: named after Democrat president Woodrow Wilson, he endured a childhood in pre-Depressed Oklahoma wrought with tragedy, hereditary illness and unfortunate circumstance, awoken by the blues, politicised on the road, he wrote ballads about the grim combination of bad land-management, bad weather and bad landowners that drove him out of the farmland. He wrote about what he knew, and balanced pop and politics in a way that would fundamentally speak to Billy Bragg, finding fame on the radio while writing a column for a Communist newspaper, and switching to anti-fascist songs once the Soviet Union had sided with Hitler, all the while adding university-of-life hillbilly verité to the more middle-class socialist scene he thrived in.
That he was laid low by the still-undiagnosed Huntington’s disease that saw his mother institutionalised when he was a boy (it’s something of a genetic lottery for the family line that carries it) lends his story a final and protracted tragic twist. He lived until 1967 but was isolated for a decade, difficult to get on with and unable to play his guitar.
This land was his land. He travelled the length and breadth of it, very often on the boxcars of myth, bound for glory but not driven by it. His songs did what folk music had been doing since Robin Hood times in this country and across the great continents of the world, and that’s tell stories. Woody’s were about economic hardship, being a migrant (how’s that going to find any resonance in the modern age?), bankers, boll weevils, oil, living conditions, Tom Joad and – why the hell not? – the Grand Coulee Dam, as commissioned by a federal hydroelectric power company, a totem of the Roosevelt New Deal. His song was called The Grand Coulee Dam.
Woody comes, as Billy says, “from the ballad tradition that goes back to Elizabethan England. If you want to find an American lyrical poet as powerful as Woody Guthrie, you’ve got to start at Walt Whitman.” He’s said to have written a thousand songs in his lifetime. None can touch This Land, adopted by some as an alternative national anthem (its original title was the slyly ironic God Blessed America), and never truer than it feels at the very moment in history that you hear it.
- This land is your land, this land is my land
- From California to the New York Island
- From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
- This land was made for you and me.
It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll, but you could start here. The lyric opens with this tour itinerary, and already you can hear the miles on its author’s clock. Rock music has always striven for authenticity, whatever that is, but no striving is required with Woody Guthrie. He picks out such poetic details as a “ribbon of highway”, the “endless skyway” and “the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts” while he sums up a great nation in just a handful of verses, the “dust clouds rolling” a Yin to the Yang of those “wheat fields waving.” He may be a ramblin’ man, but he doesn’t ramble as a writer. Like Blake, he sees angels in a grain of sand, and discerns God in every golden valley (“all around me, a voice was sounding”). This song, which is your song, is as terrestrial as it is heavenly. There’s dangerous left-wing politics in a verse often omitted that tells of a “high wall” in the protagonist’s path, with a painted sign that said, “Private Property … But on the back side it didn’t say nothing.”
This land was made for you and me.
It’s the simplest song in The 143 – matched only by Blackbird, another unaccompanied snapshot of the world – but it goes on giving. Billy found Woody through Dylan (reading about him in Anthony Scaduto’s 1972 biography Dylan). I skipped Dylan, found Woody, then came back for Dylan. It really is the circle of life. An anthology in just over two minutes.
Footnote: I was inspired to seek this entry out again in light of Joe Biden’s Inauguration as the 46th President of the United States in January 2021, where Jennifer Lopez did the honours and folded This Land into America the Beautiful. It really is the birthright that goes on living.