This Land is Your Land: America’s other national anthem

This Land Is Your Land was finally released (on a compilation album for children) in 1951, albeit in neutered form. Like Leonard Cohen’s ...

This Land Is Your Land was finally released (on a compilation album for children) in 1951, albeit in neutered form. Like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, it has no single definitive version. Two of the 1940 verses fall in and out of the song. One suggests that the US belongs to everybody, regardless of land ownership:

Was a big 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 –
[This land was made for you and me.]

The next verse introduces a note of doubt to the song’s optimistic vision by describing a common scene from the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people –
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there wondering if
[This land was made for you and me.]

When Guthrie published the lyrics in his 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie’s Songs, he added a final verse, which dispelled that doubt with a defiant reaffirmation of the song’s message:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway.
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

While every iteration of the song celebrates inclusion and equality, the 1944 recording excludes the relief office verse and the 1951 version misses out both of the radical verses, as does the 1945 pamphlet. In 1950, Guthrie’s publisher Howie Richmond licensed the song for use in school textbooks for just one dollar, which made a song without airplay a viral sensation, and he, too, used the politically sterilised version – understandably, given the rise of McCarthyism. So the version that Mrs America’s Alice Macray would have sung with her children obscured Guthrie’s politics. But what exactly were those politics?

‘Radical patriotism for the masses’

One of the top Google searches for This Land Is Your Land is a complicated question: “Is This Land is Your Land a communist song?” Woody had a quip for that: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.” While it’s true that he never joined the American Communist Party (CPUSA), during 1938 and 1939 he played many fundraisers and wrote a column for the People’s World newspaper.

For the party, this charismatic, authentic voice from the working-class heartlands was a godsend, because US communists were in a phase of reclaiming patriotism rather than rejecting it. The CPUSA threw its support behind President Roosevelt’s New Deal, claiming: “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” Guthrie, a quasi-communist who went on to write patriotic songs for Roosevelt’s Bonneville Power Administration, embodied that bridge-building spirit, as did This Land Is Your Land. The song represents something that the left often struggles to achieve: radical patriotism for the masses.

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Newsrust: This Land is Your Land: America’s other national anthem
This Land is Your Land: America’s other national anthem
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