In February 1940, Woody Guthrie put down the very first lyrics to what would become one of America’s most famous songs. Today, “This Land Is Your Land” is arguably our nation’s greatest, most iconic folk anthem. It’s been performed by everyone from Glen Campbell to Bruce Springsteen to Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. It’s been on TV, on the radio, and in the movies. And it’s sung daily by schoolchildren across our land.
Guthrie’s tune – forged by the Great Depression and intended as a caution against blind patriotism – likely persists for two reasons. First, it speaks so eloquently to our national creed of equality, justice, opportunity and community. And second, well, it’s catchy. “This Land” is set to a simple melody that grabs ahold of you and just won’t let go. All the while, the final words of the refrain, This land was made for you and me, evokes cheers, tears, and everything in between.
But those words – today, so indelible in American history and so inseparable from American life – took awhile before they took hold.
‘God Blessed America For Me’
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was happiest when he was out on the road. In his Dust Bowl roaming and rambling, he buzzed across the American southwest, from Texas to California. In early 1940, he hitchhiked across the continent to New York City – nearly freezing to death in Philadelphia along the way, but that’s a different story. In his travels across America, he saw the self-evident beauty of the country, but he also witnessed plenty of sadness and pain.
By the time he made it to New York, Guthrie was flat-out sick of Kate Smith saturating the airwaves with her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The song was a smash hit (and has an interesting story of its own; Berlin wrote the song in 1918 but found the lyrics too sappy. He shelved it until 1938, when Smith called in search of a new song). Guthrie felt the tune was completely removed from the hard life many Americans faced amid the tenth year of the Great Depression, and on Feb. 23, 1940, he was ready to write a rejoinder.