NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A Thanksgiving Reflection: Woody Guthrie’s Music and Heritage Live On

As He Sang, This Land Is (Still) Your Land

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old next July 14, had he lived. I wonder if the prolific singer and songwriter would still recognize the country that he celebrated, that he agonized over and that he forever championed in his songs.

On this Thanksgiving, I feel that it is appropriate to remember some of his songs about his native land. I’ve been listening to John McCutcheon’s new CD of Guthrie’s music and reflecting on his life and music and legacy. Much of his music remains vital and still resonates today. Eternal themes don’t go out of fashion or become untrendy.

The enduring visual I will always carry of Guthrie is of photos of him performing during World War II and carrying and playing his acoustic guitar on which he had written, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” He was and remains an enduring reminder that music has inherent power.

McCutcheon’s album, This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America, revisits many of Guthrie’s songs. McCutcheon is joined here by such friends as Maria Muldaur, Fats Kaplan, Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, Tommy Emmanuel and Stuart Duncan. The songs range from the anthemic “This Land Is Your Land” to the stark tragedies of “Deportees” and “Ludlow Massacre” and to the idyllic “Pastures of Plenty.” I think it’s fascinating that artists in other countries have translated and tailored “This Land Is Your Land” to fit their particular cultures and geographies, including Canada, Sweden, Wales, Ireland, Belgium, Israel, Namibia and the Bahamas.

Guthrie’s life and work, as you will remember, were largely shaped by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl as he traveled with migrant workers who moved west to California from devastated Oklahoma during those desperate times. He was an incredibly productive and unusually insightful writer and songwriter. In reviewing his autobiography, Bound for Glory, The New York Times wrote:

“Some day people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world.”

His music has had an enormous influence on such artists as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Bruce Springsteen.

Guthrie’s best-known song reads in part:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

Interestingly, when Guthrie wrote “This Land” in 1940 and first recorded it in 1944, it originally included other verses that usually don’t appear on recordings but do pop up now and then in live shows by different artists.

Two are:

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

And:

In the squares in the city, in the shadow of a steeple
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?

So, these days, who owns this country?

This land is not owned by the federal government, or by any state or local government, or by political parties, or by corporations, or by the banks, or by the rich, or by the media, or by the military, or by the police, or by lobbyists, or by extremists or special interests of any stripe or sort.

Remember this. There should be absolutely no confusion about who this country belongs to. This country belongs to its people. This land is your land, this land is my land. May it ever be so, God willing.