Sweet Possessives

Sweet Possessives  Image

Sweet Possessives

Colin Fleming

Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song.
By Robert Santelli.
Running Press. 256 pp. $24

Read Time:
4m 8sec

In the history of American popular songwriting, few composers have better blended hope and scorn than Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (1912–67), an artist who seemed to believe that you couldn’t have the one without the other. His acolyte, Bob Dylan, certainly has a way with a vituperative turn of phrase, but anger never sounded so righteous nor so proudly optimistic as when Guthrie sang “This Land Is Your Land,” a folk song that is both a paean to the country he loved and a critical broadside launched on behalf of all those—dreamers, migrant workers, poets, or anyone else—who ever felt that their vision of America had been compromised.

We encounter “This Land Is Your Land” so often in its myriad forms—as a jokey aside in a Simpsons episode, or as a grammar school memory, or as a sonic backdrop to the latest political rally—that sometimes Guthrie’s defiance gets lost. Most of us remember those bright opening lines:

          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 waters
          This land was made for you and me

But the end of Guthrie’s original version is surprisingly dark:

          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.

Fortunately, Robert Santelli, director of the Grammy Museum, has written a biopic of the song that—like the perpetually rambling Guthrie—covers a lot of ground. We begin with songwriter Irving Berlin, whose “God Bless America” (which he wrote in 1918 and revised in 1938) enjoyed its own kind of ubiquity in the Great Depression, thanks to singer Kate Smith. Guthrie, the hardened, hard-traveling everyman who knew the people of this country in a way few have, wasn’t in the mood for jingoism.

“Though Berlin had clearly said he wrote the song to ‘wake up America,’ the way Guthrie heard it, ‘God Bless America’ had become a sonic elixir, a numbing narcotic,” Santelli writes. Early in 1940, Guthrie made his way across the country at the height of the Berlin/Smith phenomenon. He arrived in New York City in mid-February, with Smith’s voice, no doubt, in his head. It was riposte time, and out came a song called “God Blessed America,” with a melody sourced from a Carter Family number. Two years later, Guthrie revisited the song, replacing the line “God blessed America for me” with “This land was made for you and me,” and everything clicked into place.

Santelli dutifully covers the song’s gestation and dissects the various versions before, in essence, following it out into the world. The tireless musical anthropologist Alan Lomax played a central role in the song’s dissemination. He was close friends with Pete Seeger, who in turn became tight with Guthrie. The two musicians were practically foils for each other: “While Woody perfectly represented the look of the wandering musician with rumpled clothes and hair and guitar in tow,” Santelli writes, “Pete portrayed a picture of poise and intellect.” Seeger was also a passionate “This Land” fan, and did perhaps as much as anyone to popularize it, performing innumerable concert versions.

Once he had composed “This Land,” Guthrie himself didn’t have a lot to do with where the song went, what it did, and with whom it traveled. It was there to be used by people who had use for it, and, as such, was a song forever in demand: an exemplar of faith, candor, wit, duty, and that particularly American virtue of saying “Enough. You will push me no further.” That the song was co-opted by groups, companies, and movements that would have sickened Guthrie (the Ku Klux Klan foremost among them) speaks more to its intent than its deficiencies. “This Land Is Your Land” is nothing if not inclusive. But it’s a rare song that manages to be so welcoming—downright communal, even—while railing at those who created a world of exclusion versus inclusion in the first place.

Follow the WQ on Facebook and Twitter.


About the Author

Colin Fleming’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and the Times Literary Supplement. His first book, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, is forthcoming.

More From This Issue