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

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

Inclusive and patriotic, with its roots in the radical left, Woody Guthrie’s enduring 1940s folk song offers an expansive vision for all Americans, writes Dorian Lynskey. …

The young Woody was a ravenous autodidact, a natural entertainer and a restless soul. Even though he acquired a wife and child in Pampa, he was drawn to the vagabond life, walking, hitching and boxcar-riding through the American West, and writing songs about the shattered lives he encountered. In California, he became increasingly outraged by the callous treatment given to the economic migrants known as ‘Okies’. His daughter Nora later said that he “learned socialism on the highways of America”. In 1937 he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a minor local celebrity as a protest singer and radio host. After his show was cancelled, he decided to try his luck in New York, arriving in the city in February 1940. …

Before any of this, on 23 February, Guthrie sat down in the Hanover House, a fleapit hotel on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue, and wrote six verses of a song he called God Blessed America. As the title made clear, it was a counterblast to a song that had been bugging him: Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. A Russian Jewish immigrant thankful for the safety of his adopted homeland relative to the nightmare engulfing Europe, Berlin framed his song as a ‘prayer’ – for the US and for peace. When the singer Kate Smith debuted it on her radio show on 11 November 1938 (the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day), it was instantly beloved, though not by Guthrie. Sick of hearing Smith’s bombastic recording blasting out of every radio and jukebox he passed by on his way to New York, he was spurred to try writing a different kind of patriotic anthem. …

By Dorian Lynskey, BBC

Read Article