Though many consider the song to be an unblinkingly patriotic anthem — the American flag set-to-music — it was originally conceived as a sarcastic protest song by legendary folk singer and labor agitator Woody Guthrie.
By the 1940s, Guthrie was sick of hearing Kate Smith singing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (ironically, the song Lady Gaga opened her set on before slipping in a couplet from “This Land is Your Land.”) While holed up in a fleabag hotel in New York City during a marathon writing session in 1940 during which he penned “Hangknot Slipknot,” “The Government Road” and “Dirty Overalls,” Guthrie kept hearing the Kate Smith hit on the radio.
In an irritated fit, he wrote the words for a response song he sarcastically titled, “God Blessed America for Me,” according to NPR. Each verse also ended with this line.
It wasn’t seemingly meant as a love song to his country. As noted pop critic David Cantwell wrote in Slate:
Guthrie had battled his way through the Depression-torn 1930s, boots on the ground, from Texas to Los Angeles and all around the American West. What he’d seen during his hard travelin’ — prejudice and hatred and violence, crowded labor camps, empty stomachs and hungry eyes — led him to conclude that heavenly endorsement was the last thing America had coming.Eventually, he scratched this title off the lyric sheet, replacing it with “This Land is Your Land.” He also replaced the closing line of each verse.
After borrowing the melody from a 1930 gospel recording, “When the World’s on Fire,” to strum on his guitar, which was famously adorned with a sticker reading “This Machine Kills Fascists,” he was ready to perform the new tune.
In 1944, he recorded it with Moses Asch, but that version mostly disappeared. It wasn’t published until 1997. Had it been, Americans may have viewed the tune in a different light.
As Robert Santelli wrote in “This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk 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.The Asch recording contained one of these two verses. The official recording, released years later, contained neither. Gaga did not sing them either during the halftime performance.
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.
The forgotten fourth verse, included in the 1944 recording, feels particularly prescient in the infancy of a new administration led by a president who has imposed a travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Consider that President Trump signed executive actions to build a border wall with Mexico, and it sounds downright prophetic.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.The meaning is as blunt as the sign he sings about. America claims to be for everyone, but it isn’t.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
Meanwhile, the sixth verse, which was scribbled on that original lyrics sheet but doesn’t appear in the 1944 recording, is even more politically charged. This lyrical quartet is sharply critical of America, hinting at an unfulfilled promise that the government would take care of its citizens.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,Guthrie’s daughter Nora said she wasn’t sure why this verse wasn’t included in the recording, nor did she know why the 1944 recording was never released. But she suspected it has to do with the government’s strong-armed reaction to such divisive art during that time period.
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
“This is the early ’50s, and [U.S. Sen. Joseph] McCarthy’s out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material,” Nora told NPR.
Still, as NPR noted, the original version “was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America.”
But much like with our national anthem, the verses that don’t quite fit a patriotic narrative have been, intentionally or not, edited out of the sociocultural consciousness. Now, outside of certain circles, they’ve been all but forgotten.