In the national reckoning about race that has sprung up in the wake of George Floyd’s (and other Black men and women’s) murder, symbols of white supremacy have been coming down, whether it’s the Confederate flag at NASCAR or statues dedicated to racists and Rebel leaders. Next up: our national anthem?
In recent weeks, a movement to ditch “The Star-Spangled Banner” has begun to take root, largely centering around the fact that its composer, Francis Scott Key, was a slaveholder who called Blacks “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” Last month, historian Daniel E. Walker argued Key’s song had to go, saying that the song represents “the deep-seated legacy of slavery and white supremacy in America, where we do things over and over and over again that are a slap in the face of people of color and women.”
But if we got rid of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem — that thing we sing absentmindedly before ballgames — what would we use in its place? There are plenty of possible alternatives, but the internet has often championed one song in particular.
There are reasons to debate whether “This Land Is Your Land” is a deserving national anthem, but before we get into that, it’s worth acknowledging how this Woody Guthrie song has remained so beloved for 80 years. Fittingly, it came into being because its writer was sick of a different seemingly patriotic American song.
By the early 1940s, Guthrie (who was born on July 14, 1912) had moved to New York after living out West, where he’d built a following on radio speaking out about political causes and singing traditional folk songs — as well as writing some of his own. But during the trek to the Big Apple, the musician would frequently hear “God Bless America,” which had been written by Irving Berlin in 1918 but not brought to the world until 1938 as a response to Hitler’s rise. “God Bless America” was meant to inspire the nation and remind its citizens of the greatness of this country. As opposed to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became our national anthem in 1931 and celebrated our bravery during a pivotal battle during the War of 1812, “God Bless America” was a paean to America’s natural beauty, “From the mountains / to the prairies / to the oceans / white with foam,” praying that a benevolent God would “stand beside her / and guide her / through the night / with the light from above.”
That’s a lovely, humble sentiment, but nevertheless Guthrie loathed “God Bless America.” In his biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, writer Joe Klein explains Guthrie’s objection: “[I]t was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver’s seat. Some sort of response obviously was called for and, as he hitched north and east through Appalachia’s foggy ghostlands, a string of words began to take shape in Woody’s mind.”
Guthrie was a folk singer, part of an artform that freely borrows existing melodies and creates new songs on top of them. (As Guthrie’s good friend, fellow folkie Pete Seeger, once noted, Woody liked to say, “When I’m writing a song and I get the words, I look around for some tune that has proved its popularity with the people.”) Sitting in his New York hotel room, Guthrie thought of the Carter Family’s “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” and “When the World’s on Fire” — which, another Guthrie biographer, Ed Cray, points out, were themselves derived from a preexisting song, a gospel tune called “Oh, My Loving Brother.” If you listen to those Carter Family songs, the roots of “This Land Is Your Land” are obvious.
Wanting to answer Berlin directly, Guthrie initially thought of calling his song “God Blessed America,” taking the country’s magnificence out of a deity’s hands and giving it directly to the people…
This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California, to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
God blessed America for me
By the time Guthrie finally recorded the song, in 1944, that final line had been changed to “This land was made for you and me,” which drove home the song’s point: This country belongs to each and every one of us — not to the government and not to business interests. “This Land Is Your Land” was on the side of the people, giving voice to the working class. Describing his worldview, Guthrie once wrote, “I spoke out … for all races of people — Hindu, Japanese, Chinese, Oakies [sic], Arkies, Texans, Dust Bowl refugees and migratory workers. I cussed out high rents, robbing landlords and fake real estate racketeers, loan sharks, finance companies and punk politicians in all offices.”
Guthrie recorded different versions of “This Land Is Your Land,” which incorporated additional lyrics, including one in which he imagined being stopped by “a big high wall / The sign was painted / Said, ‘Private property’ / But on the backside / It didn’t say anything.” Where other songs about America were meant to be comforting or uplifting, “This Land Is Your Land” — despite its pretty, singalong melody — was defiant, refusing to accept the idea that Americans ought to count their blessings for living in the land of the free. We weren’t beholden to the powerful — they were accountable to us.
It was a powerfully anti-capitalist stance, presumably in line with Guthrie’s marxist/socialist/communist leanings. (Depending on the bio you read of the folk singer, any of the three political persuasions may come up.) But as Cray writes in his book, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, “Guthrie represented a synthesis of populism, religious values and a fierce love of country, overlaid with Marxist concepts of the dictatorship of the proletariat and Communist Party leadership as infallible.” In other words, he drew from different influences to arrive at something authentically American: A fierce individualism that, nonetheless, championed community and extended a helping hand to those in need.
The 1940s were a period of growing popularity for Guthrie — who also published his pseudo-autobiography, Bound for Glory, during this time — but he put his career on hold to fight in World War II. When he returned to America, he kept working, but soon his health began to suffer. In the early 1950s, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease — a debilitating illness he inherited from his mother — but “This Land Is Your Land” was gaining notoriety. In his book This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli writes, “It was placed in a songbook for school music teachers in the 1950s who found the chorus was easy for young children to sing. Pete Seeger also gets credit for the song’s popularity, as he sang it throughout the 1950s and 1960s at all of his concerts.”
And, then, of course, came the folk revival of the 1960s, where younger artists like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary built on the political protest of Guthrie and others. (In Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, he recalled what it was like to hear “This Land Is Your Land” and other Guthrie songs for the first time: “All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. … I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs.”)
Considered the godfather of this new folk movement, Guthrie was hailed for his plainspoken artistry, and “This Land Is Your Land” began to take on considerable cultural relevance. In 1966, about a year before Guthrie died, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udal wrote the singer while he was in Brooklyn State Hospital, informing him that he was receiving the Conservation Service Award “in recognition of the fine work you have done to make our people aware of their heritage and the land. You sang that ‘this land belongs to you and me,’ and you sang from the heart of America that feels this about its land. You have articulated, in your songs, the sense of identification that each citizen of our country feels toward this land and the wonders, which it holds.” (Technically, Guthrie sang, “This land was made for you and me,” but close enough, I suppose.)
But just as significantly, a spontaneous, albeit unorganized attempt to turn “This Land Is Your Land” into America’s unofficial anthem started to flourish. Guthrie’s daughter Nora, who oversees her father’s legacy as head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, remembered as a kid learning how important dad’s song was to her classmates. “Whenever we stood up at the start of school to salute the American flag,” she recalled, “we sang ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ not ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” And Guthrie’s son Arlo, who became a folk singer like his old man, would talk about his dad’s later years, bedridden and ill, when he realized his legacy was secure. “[W]hen he can’t write or talk or do anything at all anymore, he hits it big,” Arlo once said. “All of a sudden everyone is singing his songs. Kids are singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in school and people are talking about making it the national anthem.”
Best I can tell, there’s never been a serious, formal attempt to get “This Land Is Your Land” adopted as the country’s official anthem, although online petitions pop up with some frequency. In a recent Los Angeles Times piece, music critic and author Jody Rosen argued that “The Star-Spangled Banner” should go, listing (and then rejecting) possible alternatives, including Guthrie’s song, which he said “is a favorite of many who lean left. Yet Guthrie’s song has its own blind spots: to indigenous Americans, the refrain ‘This land belongs to you and me’ may sound less like an egalitarian vision than a settler-colonialist manifesto.”
Again, Guthrie doesn’t sing “belongs to you and me,” but it’s a valid point — and one that the musician faced in his lifetime as well. Guthrie historian Will Kaufman mentions that the singer would say on stage, “They used dope, they used opium, they used every kind of a trick to get these Indians to sign over their lands.” (Kaufman also points out that, in Woody Guthrie: A Life, Klein writes that Guthrie’s father, a businessman, realtor and member of the Ku Klux Klan, “was able to speak both Creek and Cherokee [and] became known as especially adept at relieving Indians of their property.”)
But even if “This Land Is Your Land” has its shortcomings, there’s no denying that, more than 50 years after Guthrie’s death, the song still resonates with listeners. In the early days of the Trump administration, right when travel bans were being implemented against refugees and people from the Middle East, mass protests spread across the nation — and inspired Philadelphians to burst into “This Land Is Your Land” during a rally in solidarity with those being discriminated against.
(Fun side note: When Guthrie lived in New York, Donald Trump’s racist dad Fred was his landlord — and Woody detested the guy, writing an unrecorded song about Fred that opened with these lines: “I suppose / Old Man Trump knows / Just how much / Racial hate / He stirred up / In the bloodpot of human hearts / When he drawed / That color line.”)
Where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a militaristic battle hymn — and “God Bless America” sappy and passive — “This Land Is Your Land” has always felt like a stern reminder and a wake-up call. It’s less nationalistic than it is an act of resistance. It’s not rah-rah and peppy — it’s got an edge to it. And it’s been covered by plenty of artists over the years, including ultra-conservative country artist Lee “God Bless the U.S.A.” Greenwood and indie-pop collective Phosphorescent. Not surprisingly, protest artists often will try their hand at “This Land Is Your Land,” like Tom Morello and Bruce Springsteen, but just about every genre of performer has taken a crack at it. In fact, you may not have realized Bing Crosby did “This Land Is Your Land.”
Well, you do now:
But some of the very best covers have come from artists who represent the marginalized communities that Guthrie sought to champion. In early 2017, the Latinx psychedelic rock group Chicano Batman did “This Land Is Your Land,” noting that they hoped their version could “be an inspirational message of hope for modern America” as Trump was about to take power. To that end, frontman Bardo Martinez sang some of the song in Spanish — literally giving voice to the immigrant experience — but even in English, Martinez’s confident delivery made it clear that he was claiming Guthrie’s notion of inclusiveness and expanding it.
This process of reinventing “This Land Is Your Land” for modern times was perfected, however, in 2005, when the New York R&B group Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings released their album Naturally, which included a funk cover that created a new way of thinking about the song. Starting with slow, mournful horns before segueing into a stripped-down, almost sexy groove, Jones and her band transformed Guthrie’s acoustic anthem into a soulful celebration — part protest, part party.
Jones, who died in 2016 at the age of 60, imbued the song with resilience and weariness, and her band’s old-school, James Brown-style funk captured what was always mythic about Guthrie’s original. And she made sure to include that verse about private property, acknowledging the song’s anti-capitalist undertones, before doing a shout-out to a bunch of cities and places that Guthrie didn’t mention on that “ribbon of highway,” including Georgia and Texas. In Jones’ hands, “This Land Is Your Land” didn’t sound much like the original, but it sure felt similar in its defiant, bighearted spirit.
“There’s several ways of saying what’s on your mind. … One of the mainest ways is by singing,” Woody Guthrie once declared. “Drop the word ‘folk’ and just call it real old honest to god American singing. No matter who makes it up, no matter who sings it and who don’t, if it talks the lingo of the people, it’s a cinch to catch on, and will be sung here and yonder for a long time after you’ve cashed in your chips.”
Guthrie proved that with “This Land Is Your Land” — and artists like Jones keep proving it by remaking it in their own voice.
After all, that song belongs to you and me.