This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems
Woody Guthrie was having none of it. Near-starving and penniless, he was traveling from Texas to New York to make a new start. As he eked his way across the country by bus and by thumb, he couldn’t avoid Berlin’s song. Some people say that it was when he was freezing by the side of the road in a Pennsylvania snowstorm that he conceived of a rebuttal. It would encompass the dark realities of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and it would begin with the lines: “This land is your land, this land is my land….”
In This Land That I Love, John Shaw writes the dual biography of these beloved American songs. Examining the lives of their authors, he finds that Guthrie and Berlin had more in common than either could have guessed. Though Guthrie’s image was defined by train-hopping, Irving Berlin had also risen from homelessness, having worked his way up from the streets of New York.
At the same time, This Land That I Love sheds new light on our patriotic musical heritage, from “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Martin Luther King’s recitation from “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Delving into the deeper history of war songs, minstrelsy, ragtime, country music, folk music, and African American spirituals, Shaw unearths a rich vein of half-forgotten musical traditions. With the aid of archival research, he uncovers new details about the songs, including a never-before-printed verse for “This Land Is Your Land.” The result is a fascinating narrative that refracts and re-envisions America’s tumultuous history through the prism of two unforgettable anthems.
told jokes, and made up songs on the spot, playing the bones, Jew’s harp, harmonica, whatever came to hand. With a harmonica, he could mimic a train’s whistle and engine. One friend from the time said years later that Woody “could make up a song faster than anyone I ever knew, on the spur of the moment, about any subject,” and that he “could get more music out of an ordinary comb covered with tissue paper than many people could from a fine musical instrument.” Musicians abounded in the family.
bid him accept my love,” identifies Kleoboulos as a boy. Another fragment runs: Lad, glancing like a virgin, I seek you, but you don’t hear, not knowing that you are my soul’s charioteer. How did the poet who wrote that become the patron of a society devoted to music, drinking, and Venus’s myrtle? It turns out that the Anacreon that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries knew was pseudo-Anacreon. In the centuries after Anacreon’s death, anonymous Greek poets wrote tributes to him. About
live on hay! You’ll get pie in the sky, bye and bye. The coinage “pie in the sky”—a lasting contribution to the vernacular—was Hill’s. Hill has been called Woody Guthrie’s forerunner in protest songwriting, and Guthrie himself would write a song about him. But we know Joe Hill today more because of how he died. In 1915 he was found guilty of murdering a grocer in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was working to organize a union of silver miners. The prosecutor’s case was flimsy and
April 14, 1935. From Monthly Weather Review 63 (April 1935): 148. Source: NOAA Photo Library. Photographer unknown. With the collapse of the agricultural economy, millions of people from Oklahoma and Texas and surrounding states packed up and left in the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands went to California. California had been spared the Dust Bowl but not the Depression—no region had been—and the influx of in-country immigrants drastically exacerbated the job shortage there. The Okies, Arkies, and
bombard good old Tokio— Well, I guess that’s okie dokio But let’s pray they don’t go droppin’ ’em over here. Guthrie was not immune to the racist currents flowing through American culture at the time. In 1937 he was writing stuff that would not have been out of place in a minstrel show from the 1840s. Guthrie scholar Will Kaufman has found “jokes about ‘Rastus,’ ‘coons,’ ‘monkeys,’ ‘chocolate drops,’ and ‘all de Niggahs evahwha’ ” in Woody’s homemade newspaper from that period, the Santa