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'This Land Is Your Land' is a celebration of the American landscape, with an edge


Back in 2017, after a Trump administration travel ban caused chaos at airports around the country, protesters rushed to the scenes. They gathered in support of detained travelers from a handful of majority-Muslim countries. These protesters chanted, held signs, and they sang a simple song by Woody Guthrie.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) This land is my land, from California to the New York island.

SUMMERS: It was a reminder that "This Land Is Your Land" isn't just a campfire song for school kids. It's a celebration of the American landscape. But it's a celebration with edge. Today, on the country's Independence Day, we're revisiting this 2019 story from NPR's Elizabeth Blair.


ELIZABETH BLAIR: To understand the song, it helps to understand the guy who wrote it. In February 1940, Woody Guthrie was sitting in his room in a midtown Manhattan hotel called Hanover House.

NORA GUTHRIE: Which was a kind of fleabag hotel.

BLAIR: Standing where that fleabag hotel once stood, the late Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, says her dad might not be keen about the corporate bank across the street, but he'd be thrilled to know what is still on the corner.

N GUTHRIE: And I'm sure he ate at a hot dog stand right on this corner many times.

BLAIR: And did Woody Guthrie like hot dogs?

N GUTHRIE: Loved (laughter).

BLAIR: Hot dogs, fries and root beer were Sunday brunch, says Nora. Woody Guthrie was a no-frills kind of guy, a deeply curious wanderer. Nora says he'd go out for a pack of cigarettes and not come home for a week or two.


WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps to the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts. All around me, a voice was a-sounding, this land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: When Woody Guthrie sings "This Land," Nora says he's not just singing about deserts and wheat fields.

N GUTHRIE: The whole idea of a land is your spot on earth, you know, a spot where you can claim safety, sanity.

BLAIR: Safety and sanity - growing up in Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie didn't have much of either. Cyclones, dust storms, fire and heartbreak - a new house his father built burnt to the ground. Later, when Woody's older sister Clara, was 14, she was ironing on a kerosene stove that caught fire.


W GUTHRIE: This one blowed (ph) up, caught fire. And she run around the house about twice before anybody could catch her. The next day, she died.

BLAIR: A choked-up Woody Guthrie told the story to folklorist Alan Lomax in 1940 for the Library of Congress.


W GUTHRIE: And my mother - that was a little bit too much for her nerves.

BLAIR: Ten years later, Woody's mother died in what was then referred to as a hospital for the insane. She suffered from Huntington's disease, a genetic brain disorder that was misunderstood at the time and the same disease that later killed Woody. Woody's father lost everything. Woody and his siblings were sent to live with friends and family.

Eventually, he ended up in Pampa, Texas. When the brutal dust storms hit, he headed to California. Just as the song says, he roamed and rambled across the country - walking, hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, by bus when he could afford it. Nora Guthrie says in a way, the land was Woody's home, and he did not like to keep still, even when he recorded those sessions with Alan Lomax.

N GUTHRIE: And Alan would say, oh, come sit down and have something to eat. And Woody would stand up. He'd say, no, I don't want to get too comfortable. Don't get too comfortable 'cause you never know who's going to take your home away.


W GUTHRIE: (Singing) As I went walking that ribbon of highway, and I saw above me that endless skyway, I saw below me that golden valley. This land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: If you look at the original lyrics to "This Land is Your Land," Guthrie added a line at the bottom - all you can write is what you see. "This Land Is Your Land" was also a rebuttal to something he heard.


KATE SMITH: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love.

BLAIR: Kate Smith's version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" was on jukeboxes and the radio everywhere during Guthrie's journey across the country. He apparently hated it. After everything he'd seen, America was beautiful, but it was in trouble. He'd seen Dust Bowl refugees fighting for their lives and working people living like rats, as he put it. He originally called his song "God Blessed America," as in already did. One interpretation is that Guthrie felt Berlin's anthem was jingoism. Guthrie wanted to sing the truth. In one verse that rarely gets performed, he takes a dig at wealthy landowners.


W GUTHRIE: (Singing) There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. Sign was painted, said private property. But on the backside, it didn't say nothing. This land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: Now, the left-leaning politics of "This Land Is Your Land" are most likely lost on the millions of kids who've been learning the song more than 75 years after it was written.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) This land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: And yet politics is partly how the song spread. Woody Guthrie wasn't a communist, but he sympathized with the cause. He was pro-union and anti-war. He also, as he put it, cussed out high rents and punk politicians. The late Pete Seeger, who became an icon of folk music, often appeared with Guthrie. He told NPR they were blacklisted as early as the 1940s.


PETE SEEGER: We did one program on CBS radio, and a newspaper report out said, red minstrels try to get on the networks. And that was the last job we got.

BLAIR: Nora Guthrie says for a time, the only work Seeger could get was singing for young people.

N GUTHRIE: Basically, every kid that went to summer camps or kindergarten or college learned "This Land Is Your Land." And that's how the song really became popularized - not by my father, but by people like Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted.


SEEGER: (Singing) This land is your land. This land is my land, from California to the New York island, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.

BLAIR: "This Land Is Your Land" has been recorded hundreds of times, but most people don't learn it from a recording. Seeger said the song endures simply because people love to sing it.


SEEGER: That song was never played on the radio. It was never played on TV. It was a nothing of a song as far as the commercial world was concerned, but practically everybody in America knew this song.

N GUTHRIE: We've always gotten requests from so many thousands of people over the years saying this should be the national anthem because it's filled with beauty and love of the country.

BLAIR: But Nora Guthrie says the family disagrees. "This Land Is Your Land," she says, belongs to the people, not the government.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


SEEGER: (Singing) This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York island, from the redwood forests... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.