This Land Is Your Land

Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song


By Robert Santelli

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"This Land Is Your Land" is the most iconic folk song in American history, and is the masterwork of one of America's greatest artists, Woody Guthrie. Written in 1940 and first recorded in 1944, the song became an instant hit, and then a point of controversy, and finally a cross-generation anthem. It's been co-opted and rewritten in many other countries. Praised for its heartfelt lyrics and accompanying pride and spirit, no folk song has made such a lasting impression on American culture — or stirred as much controversy.

The book will publish to coincide with "Woody at 100" — a partnership between the Grammy Museum and the Guthrie Archives to stage numerous celebratory events throughout 2012 nationwide and beyond.

This Land Is Your Land is a remarkably detailed account of the journey of America's most celebrated folk song. It also details Guthrie's legendary journey from Oklahoma across the Heartland to New York City, where he wrote many of his works including "This Land Is Your Land."

With more than forty rare black-and-white photographs from the Woody Guthrie archives plus original interviews with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, John Mellencamp, and more, This Land Is Your Land delivers a revealing portrait of an American treasure.


Jacket, Front Cover: Woody Guthrie, ca. 1945. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives. Back Cover, Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives.
p 18: Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives. © Copyright 1956 (renewed), 1958 (renewed), 1970 and 1972 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)
PP: 23, 30, 39, 95, 105, 118, 134, 139, 189, 197 (Dave Gahr): Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives
pp. 39 & 134: Artwork by Woody Guthrie Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives. © Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.
p 51: CSU Archives/Everett Collection, p 78: Everett Collection, p 147: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo, pp 185 & 224: AP Photo, p 192: John Cohen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, p 201: Michael Ochs/Getty Images, p 251: Alex Brandon/AP Photo


FEBRUARY 23, 1940

What a long journey "This Land Is Your Land" has been on. Since it was first written down on paper on February 23rd, 1940 until today, we have heard Woody's words being sung, and occasionally altered, most of our lives. It's a song that seems to be open to all kinds of interpretations and manipulations.
We'll never really know for sure exactly what Woody's intentions were when he wrote down the words in a fleabag hotel on 43rd Street in New York City following a long journey "from California to the New York Island." The song was found in one of his many lyric notebooks, not separated out or highlighted in any special way. It was just another song among the thousands he wrote and placed in a three-hole school binder. The day after he wrote "This Land," he wrote one which he never recorded titled "Wimmen's Hats," and one that he did record, "Jesus Christ." That week, in the same hotel, he also wrote "The Government Road," "Dirty Overalls," "Will Rogers Highway," and "Hangknot Slipknot." It was a good week.
It wasn't until over a decade later that "This Land" became popularized. It was placed in a songbook for school music teachers in the 1950s who found that the chorus was easy for young children to sing. Pete Seeger also gets credit for the song's popularity, as he sang it throughout the 1950s and 1960s at all of his concerts. As a matter of fact, that's really how I first learned it. In the little elementary school in Brooklyn that I went to, we always sang the shorter version of "This Land" in music class and at the assembly programs in lieu of the national anthem. And Pete's concerts just hammered the words in as the rousing sing-along finale. It was also the song that, among all the others that my father wrote, everyone knew most of the words to, and could jam on together at all the hootenannies we went to as children.
One way of looking at the song is as an autobiographical journal written at the journey's end. Like many of his songs, I think he wrote "This Land" because, as he states on the bottom of the lyric, "all you can write is what you see." That seems to be the most honest thing anyone can infer regarding his intentions. It's just what he had seen—wheat fields waving, dust clouds rolling, people on food lines at churches, too many signs along the roads that said "private property."
And then there were the voices. The ones that he says he heard chanting "as the fog was lifting," riding on the winds swirling across the plains. Or was it the voices of people he met and talked to—"all around me a voice was sounding"—people on the road who were exhausted from the ravages of the Depression, the Great Dust Storm migration, the foreclosed homes and bankrupt farms? Could it have been one of these strangers on a train, a hobo around a campfire, a truck driver that he hitched a ride with, a homeless family in a jalopy, a migrant worker who wondered out loud in conversation something like, "Boy, and I always thought that this land was supposed to be ours?"
The idea that this land is your land, or that this land was made for you and me, is not one exclusive to Woody Guthrie. It is a longstanding idea that actually is no different from "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Everyone, in some way, learns this early on. After all, it is the premise of our democratic system.
Woody was in large part a journalist, working in the style of the old troubadours who told the story of what they had seen or heard, delivering the news, messages, and ideas from town to town and city to city. He reiterated what he heard, in verse. "I Ain't Got No Home," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Hard Travelin'," "Ramblin' Around," "Dust Storm Disaster," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," and many others, all basically repeat what people were saying about all kinds of things, from tales of mythical outlaws to their own personal experiences. It's fascinating to look at many of Woody's songs through this lens. Talking about songwriting, he once wrote, "I'm just telling you something you already knew," and to be able to really hear what they're saying, "You've got to vaccinate yourself into the blood stream of the people." And that is exactly what many of his song lyrics do. His contribution to the national discussion about what this country actually is, was to put these ideas down in a form that would go beyond the individual experience. He could create a lyric that would outlive the individual experience and preserve the idea.
"This land is your land" is an idea that is still being discussed, debated, dissected, and sometimes, even destroyed. I have seen the lyric interpreted and manipulated by just about every faction or political ideology there is, from the KKK, to religious zealots, to fear-mongering groups and salesmen. Not unlike Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the USA," everyone wants a piece of it. And, like "Born in the USA," they just want the piece that suits their agendas. Unfortunately, for these people, there will always be Woody's six original verses that ultimately ruin their efforts.
On the bright side, we've been fortunate that, for the most part, the song still remains in the public's mind, truthful to its original sentiment. Sometimes, it even hits the nail on the head. Most of us will always remember the moment when Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen led the nation in one of the largest sing-alongs in history at President Barack Obama's inaugural concert. In that moment, it wasn't being sung to inspire something to happen. It was being sung because something inspirational had happened. I remember thinking, "People all over the world are watching this and, right at this moment, this is a new impression of America." I also remember looking up and saying to my dad, "You did it. This is exactly where this song belongs, right now." For me, "This Land" had found yet another place in history where it was truly at home.
As you read through this book, I hope that you'll get a real feel for the actual cross-country journey that Woody made, that inspired him to write these lyrics. As you travel along with him, one road leading to the next road, you might also rethink "This Land," as one line leads to the next line. You might understand more deeply where he was coming from, literally and philosophically. This is where we are all coming from—these roads, these journeys, these people, these voices. And, though it may be at times a bit bumpy, we can choose to all travel together on Woody's road. By the time he had written "This Land," he had already made his choice: "Nobody living can make me turn back."
—Nora Guthrie

I first came to Woody Guthrie the way I had come to the great bluesmen Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson: by looking and listening back. Like a lot of young people growing up in the late 1960s, I was a full-on rock fan and aspiring musician. I eagerly searched out new sounds, whether they came from London or Los Angeles or points in between, and took from the music and its culture so much that they became me.
I listened intently to Cream's version of "Cross Road Blues," which the group conveniently called "Crossroads," and not only marveled at Eric Clapton's guitar genius, but also wondered who Robert Johnson, the song's author, was. Not long thereafter I came upon King of the Delta Blues Singers, a monstrous early '60s collection of old Johnson sides from the 1930s, compiled by legendary Columbia Records talent scout and producer John Hammond. The music was deep and dark, mysterious and magical, and one day I realized that I was playing it more than I was playing the Cream album Wheels of Fire, where I had first heard "Crossroads."
A couple of years later, after picking up one of the greatest live rock albums of all time, At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band, I wasted no time in searching out Sonny Boy Williamson, the bluesman responsible for the song "One Way Out," one of two of my favorite tracks on the set (the other being bluesman Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues"). Sonny Boy Williamson proved to be a harder research subject than Robert Johnson. I didn't find an easily accessible "greatest hits" album like Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers, and I soon found out that there had been not one, but two Sonny Boy Williamsons, each owning his small piece of blues history.
Further digging revealed that it was Aleck Miller, aka "Rice" Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson, aka Sonny Boy Williamson Number Two (John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson was the original) who recorded the version of "One Way Out" that inspired the Allmans. This Sonny Boy also happened to be the most amazing harmonica player I had ever heard, doubling the pleasure of my newest blues discovery.
Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Janis Joplin and the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter, along with other great '60s and early '70s blues-rock bands and artists, encouraged similar searches with equally rich payloads. As a result, I fell in love with American roots music—blues, folk, and then early country, jazz, gospel, and every other kind of pre-rock sound that helped determine America's musical identity in the twentieth century. It was an exciting time for me. Every day seemed to bring a new revelation as I ventured back in time and in song, finding gems that broadened my understanding of American music and making me determined to somehow build a life in it.
Like so many kids back then, I had picked up a guitar, inspired by the arrival of the Beatles in America, had played in bands, and had imagined myself a musician and songwriter, though I wasn't really much of either. One day, a female friend of mine who had also played guitar and who had long, straight blonde hair like so many girls of the folk revival movement back then, had given me a copy of Bob Dylan's self-titled debut recording as a gift. Unlike later Dylan albums, it was comprised of folk and blues standards and only two Dylan originals.
By the time I heard Dylan's 1962 debut, he, of course, had already busted out of folk music and was blowing wide open the possibilities of rock with the seminal single "Like a Rolling Stone" and the critically acclaimed albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Somehow I had missed his first album and the other early folk albums he recorded. I'm sure the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had something to do with that.
If you know the album, you know where I'm going with this. Of the two original songs on Bob Dylan, the one I fell in love with was "Song to Woody." (The second Dylan original was called "Talkin' New York" and was pretty good, too.) Sung softly, like he was a bit embarrassed by the gratitude expressed in the lyrics, thus exposing just how much he had learned and borrowed from the legendary folksinger, Dylan, in effect, introduced me to Woody Guthrie. I listened to that album a lot the summer and fall of 1965, almost always starting and finishing with "Song to Woody."
Woody Guthrie became my new music interest. I hardly knew anything about him, other than what Dylan had taught me, but I was determined to learn more. It was clear that Guthrie had greatly impacted Dylan. I wanted to know why. As was my routine back then on weekends, I went over to Greenwich Village, taking the bus from my home in West New York, N.J., just across the Hudson River, and thumbed through the record bins in music stores there like Izzy Young's Folklore Center on MacDougal Street until I found what I was looking for. I came up with a couple of Guthrie's old Folkways albums, read the liner notes, and realized that I already knew one of his songs: "This Land Is Your Land." I didn't own it; rather, I had sung the song more than once with the rest of my classmates in Miss Chase's music class in elementary school. She never mentioned that Woody Guthrie wrote it, only that it was a "good sing-a-long-song" and "about America."
The fact that "This Land Is Your Land" was written by someone who so obviously influenced Dylan gave the song new meaning for me. I remember coming upon either a copy of Sing Out! or Broadside, the two top folk magazines of the day, and reading more about Guthrie. I found out that he had been sick for years and had spent some time in Greystone Hospital in Morris Plains, not far from where I lived in Jersey. Later I found out that Dylan visited him there and played versions of the many Woody songs he knew to the man who could barely acknowledge his happiness at hearing them. Guthrie was suffering from the final effects of Huntington's disease, a horrible neurological disease that causes cognitive and muscular disintegration and finally death, and for which there is no cure. Guthrie had been robbed not just of his speech, but also his ability to write, to sing, to laugh, to control his muscles and limbs, to swallow, even.
Just as I was learning more about Guthrie, I heard in October 1967 that he had died. A concert celebrating his life and legacy was produced at Carnegie Hall early the next year, but by that time my family and I had moved away from West New York, down to the Jersey Shore and soon-to-be Springsteen country. Back then, New York seemed a long way from Asbury Park and other shore towns, so the trek to Carnegie Hall didn't seem feasible, even though my parents permitted their fifteen-year-old son the freedom to do so. I didn't attend the concert, but later I experienced the next best thing: the records that resulted from it called A Tribute to Woody Guthrie, Parts One and Two, on which I heard the female folksinger Odetta, Woody's son Arlo Guthrie, and others sing "This Land Is Your Land" as a grand good-bye.
Over the years, the song stuck to me. I loved the lyrics and the way they described an America of boundless natural treasures and promise. It made me want to see it all: the mountains, the redwood forest, and the gulfstream waters. The melody, of course, was just what my music teacher had said it was: a great sing-a-long song, with words that were hard to get out of your head once they lodged there. And I especially admired how a single song could sum up so much. Though "This Land Is Your Land" was simple and direct, an entire book, I thought, could be written about the song. Funny thing is, back then, I hadn't even the most remote clue that it would be me who'd write it.
I played "This Land Is Your Land" in my folk-rock band and at the local coffee house. When I became a high school teacher fresh out of college, I played it for my social studies and English classes, skipping the "sing along" idea, but pointing out the incredible richness of the lyrics and the history of how the song came to be born. When I became a father, I played it for my kids. As a cultural historian, I grew even more interested in "This Land Is Your Land," not just because it was one of the greatest of all American folk songs, but because of its social and political implications.
However, it wasn't until 1988, when my friend Dave Marsh took my interest in Guthrie and his famous song up a few more notches for me. Marsh, a Rolling Stone contributor and one of the most respected music critics at the time, was set to begin work on a book of never-before-published Guthrie writings with Pete Seeger manager and Woody Guthrie Archives head Harold Leventhal. The book was called Pastures of Plenty: A Self Portrait (The Unpublished Writings of Woody Guthrie).
Knowing of my fascination with Guthrie, Dave invited me to work with him and Harold on the project. My task was to go through Guthrie's unpublished writings in the New York-based Woody Guthrie Archives, retyping his words, making recommendations as to what pieces were interesting and important, organizing Guthrie's letters and lyrics, and finding handwritten gems that broadened our understanding of Guthrie's musical and literary brilliance.
For me, the project's highpoint came one day that summer when Harold unexpectedly called me into his office and showed me Guthrie's handwritten lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land," which was originally called "God Blessed America." He smiled and said, "I know how much this song means to you. Thought you might want to see it the way Woody wrote it." Harold sat back in his chair and clasped his hands over his protruding belly as he often did when awaiting reaction from the person across his desk.
Holding the lyrics in my hand, reading and rereading them, examining every nuance of Woody's handwriting, the side notes, the cross-outs, even the paper the words were written on instantly and forever deepened my connection to Guthrie and his song. I had never seen such an important document in American music history up close before, despite the fact that I was going through Guthrie's vast collection of writings, piece by piece. Harold told me to take it to the copy machine and make a duplicate for myself. "Put it in a frame," he said, smiling, which I did the next day, then hung it on my office wall back home where it stayed for years. I wish I still had it. I always thought that my career as a music museum curator unofficially began that day.
I had other personal experiences with "This Land Is Your Land" in the proceeding years. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland where I worked then, Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie, Harold and I created in 1996 the first-ever American Music Masters Series, which celebrated the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie. The concert featured Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and others interpreting Guthrie's greatest songs, including "This Land Is Your Land," one of the show's final numbers. I remember getting chills watching all these great artists up on the stage, singing the song, and getting everyone else at sold-out Severance Hall to sing it with them, including me.
A little more than a decade later, I moved to Los Angeles to create and run the newly opened Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. One of our first public programs featured Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. It gave me great pleasure to listen and watch as he ended his set in our intimate, 200-seat theater with a punk version of "This Land Is Your Land," thus setting the standard by which all of the young museum's programming would then be judged.
And, like many other Americans, I was nearly brought to tears by the version of "This Land Is Your Land" sung by Seeger and Springsteen at President Barack Obama's inauguration. There could be few moments as important for Guthrie and "This Land Is Your Land" as the one that occurred on the mall in Washington, D.C. that cold January in 2009. For longtime Guthrie fans, it was an unforgettable performance, a triumph long overdue.
For me, this book is yet another personal "This Land" milestone. I planned to write it a while ago, but either the timing wasn't right or other book projects pushed it aside. But with 2012 being the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth, I made sure I made time to get it finally done. It was one of the most satisfying books I have ever written. The song's unconventional history and Guthrie's remarkable story made it surprisingly easy for me to walk to my computer at 5:00 a.m. each day before going to work at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, striving to get a few hundred words written before breakfast.
People who know of my interest in Guthrie often ask if I think "This Land Is Your Land" is his best song. Guthrie wrote so many songs and so many were great. It's hard to imagine a better song than say, "Pastures of Plenty," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "1913 Massacre," "Do Re Mi," or "Tom Joad." But yes, I think "This Land Is Your Land" is still his very best. No other Guthrie song possesses such poetic prowess and natural flow. It is about America, but it is about the promise of the American Dream, too. In the song, Guthrie transforms himself into something of a nineteenth century Hudson River School landscape artist, painting with words a vision of America that is rich and sacred. By writing "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie carved himself a place next to Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck and others who have so articulately and beautifully captured in words the physical and emotional essence of America.
And yet, none of this was Guthrie's original intention when he wrote the song. The version of "This Land Is Your Land" that most Americans claim familiarity with does not contain the lyrics that doubt America's integrity or questions the country's commitment to essential freedoms. Those lyrics in the fourth and sixth verses of the song often have been washed away or simply ignored, which is why "This Land Is Your Land" has been able to stand side by side with the other great patriotic paeans to America, including "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," which, you'll see, was the original inspiration for Guthrie's song.
Whether he did it on purpose is unknown, but Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is, essentially, a musical mixed message. No other classic song about America has the dual history or dual theme that it does, or the lyrical flexibility given that many songwriters, including Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, have altered the lyrics, added to them, flipped them and slipped them into completely new political, social and/or cultural settings. Seeger once wrote that "the best thing that could happen to the song is that it would end up with hundreds of different versions being sung by millions of people who do understand the basic message." Consider that done.
This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie.
And there's more. No other great musical tribute to our nation is burdened with such controversial baggage or contains such irony. No other American standard at the same time praises and dissents, celebrates and castigates, loves and warns as does "This Land Is Your Land." No other American song of similar stature has been so misunderstood or misinterpreted. Finally, no other American song has such an interesting and often tangled story.
If "This Land Is Your Land" isn't Guthrie's best song, it's certainly his most popular and most influential. "This Land Is Your Land" has been sung all over the world. It's synonymous with Guthrie and America. Years ago there was even a movement to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" with "This Land Is Your Land," making it America's new national anthem. Anyone, though, who knew all the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land" also knew that having it become this country's representative song was never going to happen, given the contents of the verses most people never heard. (You'll find out all about them in Chapter Three.)
This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song isn't meant to be the definitive work on the song, or on Guthrie. The intent is to tell the story of both in a way that hasn't been done before. For more conventional and comprehensive biographies of Guthrie, I recommend Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, and Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man. However, with This Land Is Your Land I hope I shed some new light on both the song and its author and inspire the reader to dig deeper into American folk music and the role Guthrie continues to play in it, a century after his birth in Okemah, Oklahoma.
Over the years, many people, from presidential hopefuls on down, have come to call "This Land Is Your Land" their theme song or have it symbolize their political convictions. Fact is, no one can claim "This Land Is Your Land," as his own, not even Woody anymore. That would be like claiming the Statue of Liberty or the Rocky Mountains as one's personal domain. "This Land Is Your Land" is embedded in all of us, thus making us all owners of the song and caretakers of it too.
If nothing else, I hope This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song is a connecting rod that brings you closer to the song and helps you remember that it is an undeniable representation of the American experience, one to be cherished and sung for as long as America is America.
—Robert Santelli
Los Angeles, June 2011

CH. 1
A cold, early winter wind swept across the Texas Panhandle just a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday in late November 1939. Signs swayed along Route 66, the interstate highway that had just recently been fully paved and that connected Chicago and the middle of America with Los Angeles and the rest of southern California. Dust from the dry fields that kicked up along the way and the tumbleweeds that blew across the blacktop made for a mostly sullen sight.
Despite being in the sturdy grip of the Great Depression as well as in the throes of a multi-year drought that turned so many once-fertile farms in America's heartland into a vast Dust Bowl, people in these parts still had a few things for which to be thankful on this uniquely American holiday. Most important, their country was not at war. Not yet anyway.


On Sale
Mar 13, 2012
Page Count
256 pages
Running Press

Robert Santelli

About the Author

Robert Santelli is Executive Director of the Grammy Museum, and Co-Chairman of “Woody at 100”– a partnership between the Grammy Museum and the Woody Guthrie Archives producing numerous events celebrating Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday throughout 2012 across America and internationally. He lives in Los Angles, California. Please visit the “Woody at 100” website at

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