From California To The New York Island: An American Folk Revival Essay

Referred to as American’s folk national anthem, This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie has served as the voice of not only the generation of World War two, but has also been carried through the generation of the Vietnam war and the current War on terror. Some have analysed the song as a Marxist response to American events at the time, however for Guthrie it was a response to Kate Smith’s God bless America, a song that Guthrie had heard too much of during his hitchhiking in the wintry February of 1940.

Dust Bowl refugees by Dorothea Lange

Dust bowl refugees 

Leading up to the product of the song, Guthrie was on shore leave from his role in the Merchant Marines, one of his many occupations during the Depression and war years. During his leave, Guthrie decided to travel by foot from the Gulf coast to California, almost the same journey that many Dust bowl refugees had made from Oklahoma. Oklahoma and neighbouring states had suffered severe unemployment and drought; with no sufficient rain to help wheat and cotton grow, many families packed up and searched for new land clear from the dust storms. Guthrie questioned if the people were truly being supported; In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, by the relief office I seen my people, as they stood hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me? However, at the time of release, many people did not hear this verse as it was struck out in the published recording. In fact, many people did not hear the song many years after it was written, until the Moses Asch recordings in 1944.

The working title of the song was ‘God bless America for me’ and included two more verses. One verse about poverty (‘was a high wall there that tried to stop me, a sign was painted said: Private Property. But on the back side it didn’t say nothing’) and a verse about hunger (‘one bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people, as they stood hungry, I stood there wondering’).  The March 1944 recording that did include the private property verse was later discovered by Smithsonian archivist, Jeff place and was converted from tape to digital release in 1997 as part of the Asch recordings, volume 1, and can be heard on track 14.  The verse about hunger was never officially recorded by Guthrie and, present to this day, is in possession of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora.

Though the song was already challenging social and political norms, Nora believes that the song holds unreleased verses for a reason. ‘This is the early ‘50s, and [U.S Sen. Joseph] McCarthy’s out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material […] if my dad had done the recording, I don’t think it would have meant anything to him if he was imprisoned, actually, he was quite used to living without and having nights in prison and things like that.’

Guthrie had written the original draft of the song later in the February of 1940, after his Californian travels, on the 23rd. Per the research of political columnist, Joe Klein, Guthrie ‘completely forgot about the song, and didn’t do anything with it for another five years.’ Since there is a March 1944 recording of the song Klein should have said four years.  The song was eventually recorded during a marathon session, of over seventy songs, in April 1944 for Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways records.


The Carter family

Listening to the record you can instantly notice the similarity of the melody to the Carter Family’s When the worlds on fire, and the Baptist gospel hymn Oh, my loving brother, which was drawn upon as influence for the Carter song. Words normally came to Guthrie first and melody and instrumentation second, so why did he use the Carter melody? Was it to mock Christian stance, as he already had done with ‘in the shadow of the steeple’? Or was Guthrie attempting to propose a way to improve life here on earth, before having to wait for heaven to find peace?

During the 1940s, it seems that the world was already truly on fire; talks of war were brewing in Europe, President Roosevelt signed the Naval Expansion Act into law (which aimed to increase the United States Navy’s tonnage by 11%), Prime Minister Churchill had asked the U.S to ‘give us the tools, and we will finish the job’, and all German and Italian assets in the U.S were frozen and consulates were ordered closes.

If you recall in the first essay of this series, Lady Gaga used the folk anthem in the opening of the 2017 super bowl. A statement she used to provide hope to the millions of refugees threatened by President Trump’s travel ban. But the song has also been used innumerably since its release in 1944.

Towards to end of his life, Guthrie lost the ability to play guitar and to sing but he did not lose his ability to inspire. Folk acts influenced by Guthrie have adapted the song into their works. Many artists of the New Folk movement revived the song: Bob Dylan, The Kingston trio, Trini Lopez, and Jay and the Americans. Dylan performed and recorded his version live in New York City on November 4th 1961 in protest of the Vietnam draft. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded their version for their 1962 Moving album in protest of the Vietnam war also. The song was also performed at the founding convention of the Canadian social democratic New Democratic party, and at the inaugural celebration of Democrat, President Obama, at the Lincoln memorial on January 18th, 2009. The most recent use of the song is by Phosphorescent, used in the First 100 days playlist by Paste magazine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s