This Land is Your Land

In January of 2009, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang “This Land Is Your Land” in front of the Lincoln Memorial, for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, (Cassuto, 2012, p. 8-9) our first African American president.  This was a crowning achievement for Guthrie as well as a crowning achievement for America; it was a culmination of the forces of integration over the scourge of slavery and segregation that will forever scar the country’s history.  The song was equally symbolic of both the American dream and the American struggle of breaking down barriers and achieving equal opportunity for all of its people, regardless of their race, sex, creed, or economic disposition. The choice for using a folk song to convey this message was also a wise one.  As a result of its long history of immigration and expansion, American folk music is unique in its heterogeneity (Nettl, 1976, p. 17). No other country or ethnic group’s folk music represents such a huge body of disparate cultures and sense of inclusion. It’s hard to imagine a composer who would have been more satisfied and more apt to have his song performed than Guthrie, a champion of the common, underprivileged, and outcast person.  Guthrie fought for those people through his music, lyrics, simple compositional style, and travels throughout the country.

Born in 1912, composer Woody Guthrie lived a difficult life.  Leonard Cassuto (2012) notes that his family was financially unstable (p. 2).  His “father’s work waned more often than it waxed” (Cassuto, 2012, p. 2). His mother was plagued by and eventually died from Huntington’s disease, which caused her bizarre and erratic behavior.  It is speculated that she caused a fire that eventually burned down the family home in 1927 (Cassuto, 2012, p. 2). Guthrie moved with his father, who was injured in this fire, to Pampa, Texas and took up music.  From that point he also began a “lifelong pattern of restlessness,” (Cassuto, 2012, p. 2) migrating to California, where he became aware of what he saw as flaws in politics of opportunity for workers. Cassuto (2012) states that the “New Deal reforms were slow to reach the coast, as powerful agribusiness interests fought hard for control of a poor and itinerant labor supply” (p. 2).  

When Guthrie was living in Pampa in his early twenties, having just recently become a father, the Dust Bowl, a severe drought, hit the southern plains of the United States.  The worst day of the Dust Bowl was dubbed “Black Sunday,” in which a severe dust storm hit the plains on April 14, 1935. In a later interview in which Guthrie describes the storm, it becomes clear how his difficult life began to color his political beliefs about economic injustice:

Why, most people are pretty level-headed. They just said well, this is the end, this is the end of the world. People ain’t been living right. Human race ain’t been treating each other right. They’ve been robbing each other in different ways, with fountain pens, guns, and having wars and killing each other and shooting around. So, the Feller that made this world, He’s perked up this dust storm. And there’s never been nothing like it in the whole history of the world, even the old-timers that lived there for fifty years said they’d never seen anything like it to even compare with it. And they said yes, that’s right, somebody has robbed somebody, some of us have about starved to death, others spend five or six thousand dollars on a little party at night, some lose five or ten thousand across a gambling table at night. This nicely ain’t been living right. So this dust storm is the end (Shaw, 2012, p. 110).


Over time, Guthrie developed a politicized stance against the forces of inequality within America.  For example, speaking in his oft-used “folk dialect,” he is quoted as saying “Wall St. is where the workers git worked on an the reapers git reaped-an the farmers git plowed under” (Shaw, 2013, p. 120).  Another interesting anecdote about Guthrie’s life came shortly after he married his first wife, Mary. He had found a job at a grocery store. Even though Guthrie himself was nearly penniless, he gave over his entire first paycheck to the Moores, friends of Guthrie and a family in which the wife was ill and the husband had lost his job.  Guthrie is quoted as saying “I figured that the old fellow needed it worse than I did” (Kim-Brown, 2006, p. 18-19). Between the depression and the drought, Guthrie eventually decided to leave his farmhouse and family behind.

In 1937 he set out for California in search of better things.  During his travels, he met people of many different races who were also migrating, and in the process he picked up, played with, and exchanged songs with the other migrants.  Guthrie both absorbed and placed his stamp on some of these songs (Kim-Brown, 2006, p. 19). Unfortunately for Guthrie, California was not a welcoming place for people without money, and many of the hitch hikers were jailed or turned back.  Guthrie had a difficult time. Somehow he was able to land a radio show and form an audience with his fellow “dust bowl refugees,” who became his main audience. He sympathized with these migrants.

Shortly before Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land,” Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was a popular song within the public.  In addition to the aforementioned economic disparities amongst laborers and the wealthy, African Americans still lived under the inequalities of the Jim Crow south (Shaw, 2013, p. 138).  Shaw (2013) notes, “the irony was tragic: America, where ‘all men are created equal,’ had been founded on conquest and slavery” (p. 138). After the DAR refused to allow Marian Anderson, an African American contralto to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt allowed her to give a free concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, making history (Shaw, 2013, p. 145).  

Ten months after this historic event, Guthrie moved to New York.  Broke and homeless, out of his own resentment, he started toying with his own parodies of “God Bless America,” writing his first draft of “This Land is Your Land” on February 23, 1940 from a hotel room he was staying in, temporarily using a tune he borrowed from the Carter Family, which itself borrowed lyrics from an African American guitarist named Blind Willie Davis (Shaw, 2013, p. 152).  After hearing “God Bless America,” Guthrie was “provoked” into writing “This Land is Your Land” as a protest, because he felt the former to be too positive about the conditions at the time. That song did not adequately describe the harsh living conditions of the group of people he identified with (Shaw, 2013, p. 151).

Guthrie’s nomadic and evolving life is mirrored in the way he constructed both the verses and musical form and content of “This Land is Your Land” as well as most of his songs.  John Shaw (2013) notes that even though the first draft of Guthrie’s most famous song was written in 1940, by 1945, the first verse became the song’s chorus, with its’ tagline “This land was made for you and me.”  Guthrie made two recordings, one which contains the fifth verse about “private property” and one which does not, the second of which being the one that is traditionally included in textbooks (p. 211). Guthrie went on to record other versions of the song and eventually penned nine verses, even though no recording exists which contains all of the verses.  It is almost as if the song evolved in tandem with Woody’s life and opinions of American politics and his personal situation, and he continually gave us a snapshot with each new rendition of the song. As Shaw (2013) notes, “we have no way of knowing what Woody’s ‘final’ version was, or even if such a thing could be said to exist at all” (p. 218).

Guthrie catered his lyrics, musical performance style, and dialog about “This Land is Your Land” directly to his radio audiences, who weren’t interested in polished and sophisticated songwriting.  At a 1940 benefit for farm workers, Guthrie became the main musical attraction because of his “authentic American voice” (Kim-Brown, 2006, p. 19). Guthrie even “consciously played up his rural background” (Kim-Brown, 2006, p. 19) to further emphasize this aspect of himself.  His audience was interested in something simple that could be universally understood. According to John Shaw, (2013), Woodie’s listeners “wanted to hear songs and stories, told mostly by Woody, that reminded them of where they had come from, not slick sounding cowboy songs and ‘buckaroo ballads,’ made popular by the likes of singing cowboy and movie star Gene Autry” (p. 24).  

The structure of the melody of “This Land is Your Land” also seems to be deliberately made for Woodie’s audience.  Both the verse and chorus of the song contain the same simple melody, with only the lyrics differing. The song, written in the major mode, uses only the I, IV, and V chords.  The verse/chorus melody is built on a simple, repetitive sequence of six repetitions of the same melodic motive, varies in pitch to follow the chords, and has a final descending motive to the tonic, which is the only motive that differs rhythmically.  Pete Seeger is quoted in an interview as saying “I confess when I first heard it, I thought, gee, this is just too simple. That melody doesn’t go anywhere… dee dee dee dee dee, dee dee dee dee dee… there’s such a thing as being too simple. Well, that shows you how wrong you can be” (Doak, 2001).

Folk music is music written by and for the “folk,” or the masses, and this is the style of virtually all of Guthrie’s music.  According to Shaw, (2013) the formal study of folk music began in the eighteenth century when German philosopher and linguist Johann Gottfried von Herder published a collection of folk songs with a nationalistic intent.  Herder made distinctions between the “folk” classes and the “educated” classes. Herder is quoted as saying that literature should be founded on the “volk” (German for “folk”) instead of writing “eternally for the closet sages and disgusting critics out of whose mouths and stomachs we shall get back what we have given” (p. 97).   Guthrie’s interests were clearly aligned with the “volk” in “This Land is Your Land.”

One can also see the parallel between the construction of “This Land is Your Land” and the way that its’ genre, folk music is accepted, modified, and adopted within a particular ethnic group.  According to Bruno Nettl, (1976) “we know that a folk song, even though composed by a member of a given ethnic group, will not take hold in that group unless it conforms to the current aesthetic ideals” (p. 13).  As stated earlier, Guthrie’s audience would have rejected “sophistication” of any kind, opting for a simplicity they could identify with. Nettl (1976) goes on to state that even if a song is accepted within the group, it will likely be “changed through the process of communal re-creation until it does conform” (p. 14).  One can see evidence of this in the way Guthrie constantly added and subtracted verses to his song and changed the lyrics. Furthermore, one can see evidence of this in the way that one version of the song is adopted for schools whereas other versions of the song contain more politically charged stanzas. Since its inception, separate versions of the song have been used in all types of situations, from protest rallies to political campaigns.  It has even been stated that politicians began to use “This Land is Your Land” whether their message was in keeping with Guthrie’s message or not. Mark Allan Jackson (2002) warns us, “not only could the ‘very selfish interests Woody was fighting all his life’ that [Pete] Seeger mentions make a mockery of the song, but history itself could make the song tell a lie – or at least point out a promise not kept and an entire people displaced” (p. 271).

In his construction of the melody, Guthrie also followed the unique pattern of folk music in the United States, which is different because the various ethnic groups tend to mix, unlike the folk music in other countries.  According to Shaw, (2013) Guthrie “modified and extended the melody of ‘When the World’s on Fire’ by the Carter Family,” who sourced African American guitarist Blind Willie Davis (p. 152). Nettl (1976) explains that although Europe and other parts of the Old World folklore is homogenous because the same people have been living in particular geographic regions for many centuries, in America, the music represents a mix of all of the cultures of the peoples that inhabit the country.  “The trademark of American folk music is its variety,” (Nettle, 1976, p. 14) and it is these varying cultures as opposed to Native American music culture alone that most Americans identify with. Nettle (1976) substantiates the point by noting that “the differences between American and European folk music may be explained by the different historical developments and contrasting cultural composition of the two hemispheres” (p.16). Shaw (2012) points out that in the United States, “folk” is particularly difficult to pin down because the country is a nation of immigrants, (p. 98) and although many scholars attempted to compile and catalog folk songs from various heritages, including African American heritages, it wasn’t until 1927 that Carl Sandburg published a book that according to Shaw, (2012) “settled the question of the identity of the American folk” (p. 103).  Sandburg compiled The American Songbag, an “extremely popular” collection unmatched by any before it in the number of “published songs from different ethnic groups and regions in one volume, [including] cowboy songs, British ballads, slave songs, minstrel songs, spirituals, and Mexican songs” (Shaw, 2012, p. 103).  Whether consciously or subconsciously, Guthrie’s melody and lyrics fit within the culturally diverse pattern of American folk music.

The verses of “This Land is Your Land” run in parallel with the ever-evolving nature of and ideas present in American folk music.  Nettl (1976) states that “American folk music is constantly changing,” and as new people immigrate to the United States, new cultural practices and thus new bodies of music are adopted and integrated (p. 19).  In addition to this metaphorical “cultural frontier,” the literal concept of the “frontier” is also mostly unique to American music due to our westward expansion (Nettl, 1976, p. 18). Just as how Guthrie, with each new verse of “This Land Is Your Land” explored new political and philosophical frontiers, American folk music pushed new frontiers with each new ethnic group included in its expansion of both its cultural and geographical frontiers, including its disputes and changing ideology around slavery (Nettl, 1976, p. 16).  Nettl (1976) also notes that Americans are more “mobile” than Europeans due to their adoption of the automobile and other mechanical devices, and thus there is more migration and travel between city and urban areas in the United States. Consequently, the music of the city is just as much folk music as the music of rural areas, in contrast to European folk music (p. 17). As we would expect, Guthrie wrote verses for “This Land is Your Land” that mention both the city and the idea of breaking barriers:

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 it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.


In conclusion, Woody Guthrie wrote with the ideals of American folk music in mind.  “This Land is Your Land” has been a perpetual song choice to celebrate many of our nation’s most defining moments.  In Catherine Kim-Brown’s article “A Hard Travelin Man,” (2006) she quotes Guthrie as saying “I’m out to sing the songs that will prove to you that this is your land, no matter what color, what size you are or how you were built” (p. 1).  Guthrie’s approach to his music was “inclusive,” as opposed to “exclusive.” Consider this final anecdote of Guthrie’s beliefs:

Guthrie–and also Seeger–was a Communist sympathizer at this time, but Guthrie probably didn’t join the party. When asked about his politics, he had a one-liner at the ready: “I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.” You could say he was never an official joiner–or perhaps that he could never belong to a group that would exclude anyone. In response to a question about his religion toward the end of his life, he quipped: “All or none.” (Cassuto, 2012, p. 3).


According to Bruce Springsteen, Guthrie “never had a hit, never went platinum, never played in an arena, never got his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone,” but at the same time was a “big, big ghost in the machine” (Cassuto, 2012, p. 9).  From the classroom to presidential inauguration, or to the picket line, “This Land is Your Land” is a unionizing force for the growth of humanity and it is our responsibility to keep it that way.



Doak, J. (2008, November 29). Woody Guthrie Biography. Retrieved from


Cassuto, L. (2012, October 12).  Woody guthrie at 100. Chronicle Review, Retrieved from


Jackson, M. (2002).  Is this song your song anymore?: revisioning Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”  American Music, 20(3), 249-276.


Kim-Brown, K. (2006).  Woody Guthrie: A hard travelin’ man.  Humanities, 27(4), 16-21.


Nettl, B. (1976).  Folk music in the United States.  Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.


Shaw, J. (2013).  This land that I love: Irving berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the story of two American anthems.  New York, NY: PublicAffairs.


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