Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Saturday, November 28, 2009

1960s: Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land

Woody Guthrie died in 1967 in Brooklyn State Hospital in New York. By that time Huntington's diseasee had ravaged his entire nervous system, rendering him unable to speak or move. He had been diagnosed in 1952 when he was just 40 years old.

Woody was an alcoholic par excellence. He was a brilliant artist. He wrote an incredible number of songs – songs which often have a greater impact when simply read. Ironically, his prose is as lyrical as his poems and songs. Altogether he produced over 3000 works.

With his music he described the plight of the migrant workers, the miners, the dust bowlers, and any other downtrodden group. The U.S. State Department commissioned him to write songs promoting the building of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State. Woody completed twenty-six songs in thirty days.

Woody actively supported the Communist Party but when the U.S. was attacked in 1941 he immediately began writing patriotic songs. He detested Irving Berlin’s sappy God Bless America and decided to write the amazing This Land Is your Land, which his loyal friend Pete Seeger, and many others, have sung to this day. Woody’s folk music has lasted generations and it had a huge impact on the music of the 60s.

Irony of ironies. Pete Seeger is being interviewed on NPR as I write this. He's been talking about Woody and is now beginning to sing This Land Is Your Land.

Joe Klein wrote the biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, in 1980. I picked it up several years ago at a used bookstore. It has been sitting on a shelf since then. A couple of weeks ago I began reading it and it will probably be the only book that I ever read a second time immediately after the first. There are so many layers, so much cause and effect, so many intricasies that it's not till the last part of the book that all the threads are tied together. To understand the end you have to go back to the beginning.

UPDATE: PBS is showing Woody Guthrie on American Masters 11/30 - at least here in Nashville.



    perhaps this is more telling of the times?

  2. This is a good one and I had watched it but opted for This Land. Do Re Mi had something to do with police barricades in LA and isn't as well known today. People have been singing This Land ever since Woody composed it and the video featured more of Woody the man than external forces. This was an unusual post for my 1960s series - usually I don't add very much, if anything. I have to confess that since reading Klein's book I've become totally
    fascinated with the man.

  3. I should note that 'This Land is Your Land' is as much subversive as it is patriotic.

    '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.'

    Woody never stopped being a Communist and, while I stop short of Communism myself, I don't entirely blame him.

  4. The verse you quote is the last one. The rest, except for this one and the one before it, sound pretty "patriotic" to me. He changed the lyrics several times so I don't know if these were in the first version, kept, changed or dropped. When I have a couple of days with nothing else to do I'll check it out.

  5. The verse about the no trespassing sign is an endorsement of hoboism at the expense of private poverty.

    Mind you, I don't think 'subversive' and 'patriotic' are mutually exclusive. I'm sure some find me subversive, but I consider myself pretty patriotic.

    I've used the song as a starting point for blog entries on a couple of occasions, so I'm certainly not trying to knock it. :)