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This Land Is Your Land


The much commented-on irony of Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” is that it is often sung as if it were a patriotic anthem, such as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “God Bless America.” In fact, the song was written by Guthrie in response to Irving Berlin’s then smash hit, “God Bless America.” The song was originally titled “God Blessed America,” but Guthrie scratched it out and renamed it “This Land is Your Land.” How could “This Land” seem to have the same message as the song that it was written to criticize? This is quite simple. Guthrie’s song is, in part, a celebration of the natural beauty of the United States. But what Guthrie is also celebrating is the fact that the land actually belongs to us! When he says “This land is your land/this land is my land,” he means just what he is saying: This land is communal property, not is some vague patriotic sense, but in a very real economic sense. Private ownership of the land is a meaningless claim, or worse still, theft. This is made clearest in the fourth verse where the singer says:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was posted, said “Private Property”
But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing --
This land was made for you and me

Also, when Guthrie is praising the natural beauty and bounty of the United States, he is not doing this to simply glorify his homeland. Instead, he does this to set up a contrast in the sixth verse, between the riches of the United States and the poverty of many of its people:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people--
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering
if this land was made for you and me?

Again the question arises, how can a song that calls for collective ownership, denies the concept of private property and paints the U.S. as a miserly nation that robs its people of their dignity be commonly mistaken as a patriotic hymn? This is because the song is mostly sung without the offending fourth and sixth verses, something that even Guthrie himself would do on occasion. So lobotomized, the song because a happy tribute to a satisfied nation.  This is why, in his last years, Guthrie made sure that his son Arlo memorized these two critical verses. He wanted to make sure that they were not forgotten.

Below are the full texts of both songs, so you can make a comparison yourself.

God Bless America
by Irving Berlin

(Imagine this sung by Kate Smith.)

God Bless America
Land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above
From the mountains, to the prairies
To the oceans with white foam
God Bless America
My home, sweet home
God Bless America
My home, sweet home!

This Land is Your Land
by Woody Guthrie

(chorus) This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island,
From the redwood forest to the gulf stream water,
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley, I said
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
O'er the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
While all around me a voice was sounding, saying
This land was made for you and me

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was posted, said “Private Property”
But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing --
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun was shining, then I was strolling
In the wheat fields waving, and the dust cloud rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people --
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering
if this land was made for you and me?

Click here to learn about Guthrie’s song I Ain’t Got No Home.

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