In 1940, Woody Guthrie sat down and wrote his personal response to the song ‘God Bless America. ’ He felt a different story of America needed telling. This story would celebrate the beauty of the American expanse. At the same time, it would also celebrate the average working citizen who labored across the land. The result of his creativity was ‘This Land is Your Land, ’ a song that is still taught in school music classes.
Woody Guthrie felt ‘God Bless America’ ignored the inequities in the capitalist system. He felt it was an unrealistic view of America. He held the view that too many citizens had too little. He believed that too small a segment of the population owned the greatest proportion of wealth.
This was evident in versions that never made it into print or onto records. These versions espoused more of his political views about the state of America. Over the years, he often changed the lyrics to the song, giving different performances of it.
One of the published versions of his lyrics includes this verse:
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land's still made for you and me.
The original title of this song by Guthrie was ‘God Blessed America for Me. ’ He eventually changed the line to ‘This land was made for you and me. ’ The song received its first recording in 1944 with Guthrie and folk singer Cisco Houston. First published in 1951, it was included in a book with nine other songs.
Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He experienced life during the Great Depression and witnessed its effects on the average blue-collar worker. He saw first-hand the trek by workers to find work on the West Coast.
By 1936, Guthrie landed in Los Angeles, like so many from other parts of the country. In the spring of 1938, he spent time going from place to place singing for the migrant workers.
He ended up with the moniker ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’ as he followed the paths of these workers. As they traveled from Oklahoma to California Guthrie wrote songs about their lives and trials.
He developed his own views of the world around him and these became manifest in his songwriting. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s exposed him to the racism and class struggles that these workers faced.
His wandering lifestyle across America instilled in him a great compassion for everyday Americans. He came to appreciate the variety of races and cultures that made up the country. Along with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie was responsible for the folk revival of the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1940, he ended up in New York City, a move that propelled his career forward. He wrote and recorded here, wrote ‘This Land is Your Land, ’ did radio, and generally made a decent living.
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at “Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions"!