This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper nearly 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

15 Slick Facts About Grease

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Paramount Home Entertainment

The movie Grease (1978), based on the musical of the same name, is about to be reimagined for a new generation. HBO Max just announced that it will be premiering Grease: Rydell High, a musical series inspired by the film. In the 1978 big-screen adaptation, John Travolta played tough guy Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John starred as sweet Sandy Olsson, two teenagers whose summer romance suddenly blossoms into a full-fledged high school love affair.

Shot on a budget of $6 million budget, Grease made nearly $400 million at the box office—making it one of the highest-grossing musical movies of all time.

1. Henry Winkler turned down the role of Danny Zuko.

As far as Henry Winkler was concerned, Danny Zuko was too similar to Fonzie, the tough guy with a heart of gold he was already playing on Happy Days.

2. Marie Osmond and Susan Dey said no to playing Sandy.

Marie Osmond told Larry King that she turned the part down because she “didn’t want my teenagers some day to say, you know, ‘You have to go bad to get the boy.’ It was just a personal choice as a some day mother.” Dey (Laurie on The Partridge Family) didn’t want to play another teenager. Director Randal Kleiser went to the Star Wars mixing stage to visit his college roommate, George Lucas, and to see Carrie Fisher in one of the battle scenes. But Kleiser couldn’t tell from the scene whether Fisher was right for the part, so he kept looking. In 1998, Travolta revealed he heard singer Linda Ronstadt was also in consideration.

3. Olivia Newton-John insisted on having a screen test with john travolta.

Producer/co-writer Allan Carr met Olivia Newton-John at a party thrown by fellow Australian singer Helen Reddy and was “completely smitten” and begged her to sign on for the part. Travolta told The Morning Call that he rallied for Newton-John to get the part, too. Not trusting her good fortune or her acting (her previous film, Toomorrow, had been released back in 1970), Newton-John requested a screen test with Travolta to make sure they had chemistry.

4. Andy Warhol and an adult film star would have been cast if Paramount hadn’t stepped in.

Carr wanted Warhol to play the art teacher. One unnamed studio executive said he would not have “that man” in the movie, which Carr interpreted as the executive having a personal vendetta against the legendary artist. Carr also wanted porn star Harry Reems to play Coach Calhoun and offered him the part after a screening of Casablanca at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. The studio wouldn’t have it. “They bounced me out of the cast,” Reems said. “They thought they might lose some play dates in the South.” Carr felt so badly about it that he wrote Reems a personal check for $5000.

5. Lorenzo Lamas landed a role when a president’s son backed out.

Gerald Ford’s son, Steven, was too nervous to play Tom Chisum, Sandy’s jock boyfriend, who had a grand total of zero lines. Lamas (later Lance Cumson on Falcon Crest and Hector Ramírez on The Bold and the Beautiful) jumped at the chance, agreeing to lighten his dark hair because he looked too much like a T-Bird. "I would have dyed it green, fuchsia, anything," Lamas told People.

6. Most of the main actors were far too old to be in high school.

Stockard Channing (Rizzo) was 34 when the film was released. Newton-John was 29. Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) was 27. Travolta was 24. Jamie Donnelly (Jan) was 30 during filming, and had to dye her hair from her premature grey to black. Her hair grew back so quickly that her roots had to be colored in with a black crayon every day.

7. The title song was written by Barry Gibb, and Peter Frampton played guitar.

Kleiser didn’t like this song because he thought the lyrics were too dark and not fitting of the 1950s. Kleiser asked Gibb to make the lyrics more upbeat; Gibb told Kleiser he should shoot a serious scene to match the song. It became a number one single in the United States.

8. Rizzo’s hickeys were real.

Conaway gave Channing a real hickey because he wanted it to be authentic. Conaway was also so infatuated with Newton-John that he was tongue-tied whenever she was around. He later married Olivia’s sister, Rona.

9. "Greased Lightnin'" was supposed to be sung by Jeff Conaway, not John Travolta.

Travolta’s two conditions for agreeing to play Danny were that he could sing “Greased Lightnin',” even though Kenickie sang it in the stage production; and that he had to have “blue black hair like Elvis Presley and Rock Hudson in the movies” because “it’s surreal and it’s very 1950s.” The star also argued with Kleiser over the end of the song “Sandy”; he wanted a close-up of himself instead of the cartoon shot of a hot dog diving into a bun. Kleiser got his way.

10. Coca-Cola signs were (mostly) blacked out.

Carr made a promotional deal with Pepsi; the set decorator didn't know that. When the producer saw footage from the movie featuring Coke products he went “ballistic,” according to Kleiser. The Coca-Cola logos were blocked out with an optical printer. They couldn’t alter the Coke cooler, because it was impossible to cover with the technology available at the time. Pepsi never complained. They would have unblocked the Coke signs when the Pepsi deal expired before the 20th anniversary re-release if the original print hadn’t been lost.

11. Travolta kept flubbing a word so much it was kept in the movie.

Travolta kept lip-syncing "heap lap trials" instead of "heat lap trials," and Kleiser claims you could see this in the finished product. Kleiser believed Travolta was distracted after reading a magazine article that morning about his recently deceased girlfriend, Diana Hyland, who had passed away from cancer.

12. Travolta got more of the stage script into the movie.

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who wrote the original musical’s book, weren’t invited on set during production of the movie. Travolta had played Danny more than 100 times on the road doing the musical, and gradually got more lines from Jacobs and Casey’s version into the film, which was written by Carr and Bronté Woodard. When Travolta didn’t think a line of dialogue was working, he would quote a line from the original, and Kleiser would tend to agree and use that line instead.

13. That Elvis Presley lyric is creepy.

In “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” Rizzo sings “Elvis, Elvis, let me be, keep that pelvis far from me,” while looking at a picture of The King. That scene was shot on August 16, 1977—the day Presley died. “It was very eerie,” Kleiser told The New York Post. “It was all over the news, so everyone knew. We did this number, and everybody kind of looked at each other like, ‘Yeah, this is creepy.’” When Carr first bought the film rights to Grease, he envisioned Elvis as Danny and Ann-Margret as Sandy. According to Broadway.com, Presley was offered the role of Teen Angel but turned it down.

14. Olivia Newton-John was sewn into those spandex pants.

"They sewed me into those pants every morning for a week," Newton-John said. "Believe me, I had to be very careful about what I ate and drank. It was excruciating." It was 106 degrees on the set for the carnival finale.

15. George Lucas helped get the movie re-released.

In 1997, Kleiser called Sherry Lansing, then head of Paramount, and insisted that Grease had to come back again for its 20th anniversary. Lansing informed Kleiser that George Lucas had called her a few days earlier and said that out of all of the movies in the Paramount vault, Grease is the one that should come back. The Star Wars creator explained that every nine-year-old he knew watched a VHS copy of Grease every day.

11 Surprising Facts About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon—who was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940—was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles

1. John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. John Lennon hated his own voice.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. John Lennon was dissatisfied with all of The Beatles's records.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. John Lennon was the only Beatle who didn't become a full-time vegetarian.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. John Lennon loved to play Monopoly.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. John Lennon was the last Beatle to learn how to drive.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. John Lennon reportedly used to sleep in a coffin.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. The last time John Lennon saw Paul McCartney was on April 24, 1976.

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. John Lennon was originally supposed to sing lead on The Beatles's first single, 1962's "Love Me Do."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "All You Need Is Love" was the best lyric John Lennon ever wrote.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. The last photographer to snap John Lennon’s picture was Paul Goresh.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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