Two songs we still sing tell many more than two stories about the land we call the United States.
A Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin, wrote God Bless America in 1918 while serving in the U.S. Army. He borrowed a six-note sequence from a Yiddish tune, but he wasn’t then satisfied with the song. It didn’t fit the show he was working on or the spirit of the time.
In 1938, with Adolf Hitler positioning Germany for war, Berlin wanted a song of peace as well as praise for the U.S., and he remembered God Bless America, which he modified slightly. It was first sung by Kate Smith in an Armistice Day radio broadcast that November, and it became her theme song, played often on the radio. Berlin donated the royalties from the song to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of New York City.
To the ear of singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, though, God Bless America sounded too complacent, as though the nation had no need to change. Guthrie was the Oklahoma-born voice of the farmers and laborers who had lost everything in the Great Depression. The quote below, from his stage patter, explains what he felt a song should do.
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.
Over 10 years of sporadic research, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Guthrie was angry about God Bless America, but he saw it as the wrong song. He was sick of hearing it on the radio. So he, too, borrowed part of a melody, this time from a Baptist Gospel hymn, and in 1940 wrote the song we know as This Land Is Your Land.
As with many of his songs, he varied it from performance to performance, and two verses don’t show up on his recordings. Those are more pointed than the other verses. One talks about a “No Trespassing” sign, but on the other side the sign “didn’t say nothin’. That side was made for you and me.” The other seldom-heard verse sometimes ends in a question: “By the relief office, I’d seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?”
I doubt that Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie ever met each other, but if they did, I suspect that the Jew from Eastern Europe and the vagabond from the Dust Bowl would have recognized in each other the urge to help their country through music. The video below is a stunning version of This Land in the spirit it was intended.
— By Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine