Slowly and gingerly, Deana McCloud picked up the 75-year-old piece of paper and carefully placed it in the display case at the center of the Woody Guthrie Center.
Written in Woody Guthrie’s artful handwriting on the cheap, slightly yellowing paper are lyrics to one of America’s best-known patriotic anthems, and also one of its most subversive. “God Blessed America” is written at the top, but the words are scratched through. Below in pencil are the words “This Land.”
“He really thought about this song. You can tell by the edits on it,” McCloud said.
McCloud, executive director of the center, points to the bottom right corner, where there is Woody Guthrie’s signature and a date: Feb. 23, 1940.
Monday marks the 75th anniversary of Okemah-native and music pioneer Guthrie writing his best-known song, one sung by schoolkids and known by adults across the country: “This Land is Your Land.”
The song would to some extent become part of it was trying to subvert: an idyllic view of America that was not what Woody Guthrie saw. “This Land” is a nice love song to America, but in its full version it becomes a deeper look inward, a look at what Guthrie saw happening across the country during his travels during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
It’s still a love song to America, but an honest one, McCloud said.
Writing ‘This Land’
Guthrie had arrived in New York City in early 1940 at age 27, already tired of hearing Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America,” sung by popular singer Kate Smith. Originally written after World War I, she revived it and hoped it could celebrate Armistice Day.
“She got Irving Berlin’s song, sang it live on the radio, and it went viral in the 1930s, or whatever that meant back then. It was hugely popular,” said Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and author of “This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song.”
“Woody had heard it — and heard it and heard it and heard it like so many other Americans — and decided that even though the song was a great song, but he didn’t feel that Irving Berlin had told the full story of America,” Santelli said. “Based on his travels in the 1930s, the Dust Bowl and the plight of the Okies in California, he wrote a response, and he called it ‘God Blessed America.’”
Past tense, bless-ed. Yes, God blessed America with a vast expanse of land and with a strong, resilient people. But the Great Depression sent those Americans looking for a better life — hopefully one that included work and food. The vast expanse of land turned on those people into a hellish and frightening landscape.
“God has already blessed America,” McCloud said of the song’s meaning. “Now, what are we going to do with it?”
Much like “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land” paints a beautiful picture of America’s landscape, describing “that ribbon of highway/
And I saw above me that endless skyway/And saw below me the golden valley.”
But the third and fifth verse describe Guthrie seeing a sign reading “Private Property” with nothing on the back of the sign (“This land was made for you and me”). He described seeing his people in line at the relief office in the shadow of the steeple: “As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if/This land was made for you and me.”
“It was the original protest song,” McCloud said. “We can celebrate the beauty in our world while pushing for social change. It’s a song to celebrate who we are.”
Recording ‘This Land’
The song was written in 1940, then promptly tucked away in one of Guthrie’s many, many notebooks. And there it sat for about four years. That’s when Guthrie would finally dust it off and record the song.
But even then, it didn’t get much traction. Even the person who would eventually help make the song so popular, Guthrie’s friend and fellow folk singer Pete Seeger, didn’t see the song’s future.
“Pete often went on record saying the first time he heard ‘This Land is Your Land,’ he didn’t think much of it,” Santelli said. “Eventually he came to understand its significance and its poetic beauty.”
It would take separate groups taking away from the song what they wanted before “This Land” would be an alternative national anthem. On one hand, the song made its way into school textbooks and the songbook of popular singers — the controversial lines usually removed — as a song to sing about American patriotism.
On the other, the folk movement in the 1960s was drawn to the song because of its subversive message.
“Of course during the Cold War, me being a baby boomer, I remember learning that song in fifth grade to teach kids how to sing,” Santelli said. “It’s a great sing-along song and a great patriotic song. I learned the song a whole lot earlier than I knew about Woody Guthrie, like many baby boomers.”
Santelli said he doesn’t think the removal of those verses was a move to whitewash the song, take out its teeth to make it appeal broadly; it was more just a sign of the times.
“People say they deliberately cut off those lyrics. Well they did, but not necessarily for political purposes,” Santelli said. “Talking about relief lines: There weren’t relief lines — not that many anyway — in the 1950s like there were in the 1930s during the Depression. Basically it was a matter of convenience.”
The song was recorded by several artists in the era, including Peter, Paul and Mary, The Seekers, Bob Dylan and more. The song was included in Bruce Springsteen’s 1986 album “Live 1975-1985,” recorded in 1980. Springsteen called it then “one of the most beautiful songs ever written.”
What has kept the song in the American zeitgeist is its timeless message, Santelli said. Both its patriotic description of the country’s landscape and its observations of the disenfranchised.
“I think ‘This Land is Your Land,’ it may be as Bruce Springsteen said, the great American folk song,” Santelli said. “It certainly is a relevant song today, particularly in this time where we’re thinking about immigration and deportation, when we’re thinking about who actually has ownership of this thing we call America — not just the land but the concept, as well. The song ‘This Land’ is the fight song, it’s the theme song.”
Preserving ‘This Land’
The handwritten lyrics lived with the rest of Guthrie’s archive in New York before the collection was purchased by the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2011 and moved to the new Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District in 2013.
“It’s our treasure,” McCloud said. “We take care of it.”
After opening, the Center displayed the original lyrics for several months in a climate- and light-controlled glass case, but most of the time the original copy is stored in the archives and a facsimile is displayed.
The archives take extra steps to ensure the paper on which the song is written is able to survive the decay of time, said Woody Guthrie Center archivist Kate Blalack. It’s kept in an acid-free folder in a box, locked in the climate-controlled archive with a gas fire-suppression system, as well as the more than 3,000 other lyrics Guthrie wrote.
“It’s trying to stop nature, which is a very unnatural thing,” Blalack said.
The original lyrics are usually only displayed around the center’s anniversary in the spring, but McCloud said they wanted to recognize the lyrics on the anniversary by making them available to the public, as well as putting together a special exhibition on the song and its global influence. The display will include audio of the song in several languages.
Its influence, its message and its inspiration will live long past the time the ink fades on the cheap piece of paper.
“I think that’s really important here: It’s not just about the physical qualities of America that Woody Guthrie sings about,” Santelli said. “The lyrics say that. But underneath the lyrics it’s about the idea of America as much as it is its physical beauty.”
Jerry Wofford 918-581-8346