1/4/11 - this land is your land

In today's excerpt - in the wake of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote the song "This Land is Your Land," a satire and protest against what he saw as the unrealistic vision of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." It was originally titled "God Bless America for Me," and the original chorus used that line instead of "this land was made for you and me." Guthrie eventually deleted two verses, perhaps because he knew he couldn't get the song published otherwise—one that lamented the lack of help provided by America's churches for the poor, and the other his protest against the idea of private property (read those verses after the author credit below):

"Folk music's hero was, of course, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie led by example, not by precepts, although his charisma and songwriting skills gave him a certain messianic quality. ... Musicians simply followed Guthrie. He was a journeyman, traveling across the United States to learn traditional folk and blues songs, trailing migrant workers from Oklahoma to California. Guthrie's observations of the economic and environmental hardships of the Dust Bowl era inspired him to write his own lyrics about working people, which he set to traditional folk music.

"Topical songwriting as defined by Guthrie meant chronicling a plane crash of migrant workers soon after it happened, with politics giving the lament implicit meaning. 'I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work,' said Guthrie—a goal that would impact his most popular song, 'This Land Is Your Land,' a response to Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America.' Guthrie's original 1944 version contained two recriminatory verses, but he later killed them to preserve the wholly patriotic tone of the version that went on to become an American songbook classic. His songs told the truth—as long as it was an uplifting truth.

"In the late 1950s, growing pools of folksingers in Cambridge and Greenwich Village took Guthrie's lead and focused on the issues of the day, especially civil rights. Though all these musicians knew and admired Guthrie, the one to seek him out in his declining years at the Greystone Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, was Bob Dylan. Dylan idolized Guthrie, calling him 'the true voice of the American Spirit'—indeed, Guthrie is one of the few subjects Dylan does not obfuscate in his memoir Chronicles. When Dylan first hit the coffeehouse scene in New York in 1961, he could be accurately introduced onstage as a 'young folksinger' who 'sang a lot of Woody's tunes.' In those days, a musician was presented with a body of songs, or 'rebel ballads,' as Dylan liked to call them, so authoritative that it took real ingenuity even to think beyond them."

The original last two verses of "This Land is Your Land":

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.


Michelle Mercer


Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period


Free Press a division of Simon Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Michelle Mercer


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