‘This Land Is Your Land’: Portrait of a Song as a Bird in Flight by Pete Seeger


[This article, written by Pete Seeger, first ran in our paper on July 1, 1971]

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The song “This Land Is Your Land,” with its deceptively simple melody, was first put together by Woody Guthrie around 1940. When he first got the idea for it, “God Bless America” was getting a big play on the radio. The last line of his verses originally went, “God Blessed America for me.” Through the months and years he changed it, and in the late 1940s he recorded it for Disc Records (now Folkways) in the version printed on this page which is now widely sung by school children and summer campers throughout the USA. Around 1949 the Jewish Young People’s Chorus directed by Bob DeCormier in New York started singing it. When Woody Guthrie went into the hospital in 1952 he signed over the rights to the then little-known song to a publisher who now collects royalties for it and turns them over to Woody’s family. Indirectly much of the royalties go to the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease, which has been set up by Marjorie Mazia Guthrie.

By the mid-1950s a few school song books dared include it. By 1971 they all do.

The song has now been used in movies and tv, and has even been used to accompany a television commercial for Pan American Airlines. Today every American has heard the song at some time or another, even though it has never been at the top of the hit parade. A few far rightists look upon the song as part of the “International Communist Plot,” but the daughter of Governor Reagan of California likes to include the song in her repertoire as a “folk singer.”

What will happen to the song now? My guess is it depends on who sings it, and how, and for what purpose. After all, there were a number of other versions of the song which Woody also wrote which are not so generally known. Some of these verses have been found among his papers and files. I and others have started singing them. We feel that there is a danger of this song being misinterpreted without these new/old verses being added. The song could even be co-opted by the very selfish interests Woody was fighting all his life. Clark Clifford in March 1950 addressed the wealthy businessmen at Chicago’s Executive Club: “I feel the people have to feel that their small share of this country is as much theirs as it is yours and mine. . .” Without some new verses, TLIYL falls right into Mr. Clifford’s trap. In other words “Let people go ahead and sing the song. Meanwhile you and I know who really controls the country.”

One young fellow wrote me that he was starting a campaign to make the song the national anthem. I wrote him, “Please stop!” Can’t you see U.S. Marines marching into another little country playing this song?” In any case, I for one would be sorry to see it made any sort of official anthem. A song is not a speech. Like any work of art, it has many meaning for many people. It reflects new meanings as life shines new lights upon it. To make “This Land Is Your Land” an official song would be to rob it of its poetic career and doom it to a political strait jacket, no matter how well fitting the jacket might seem to be at the time.

Here are some of Wood’s lesser known verses:

In the squares of the city by the shadow of the steeple
Near the relieve office I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Was a great big sign that said private property
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me.

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

When I sing the song in 1971, I still usually end up with the gloriously optimistic verse, “The sun came shining and I was strolling.” But before this I do a lot of singing and talking and often throw in a couple new verses of my own.

Maybe you been working as hard as you’re able
And you just got crumbs from the rich man’s table
Maybe you been wondering, is it truth or fable
This land was made for you and me.

Dozens of other verses have been written to the song within the last 10 years. Some of them simply change a few words to make the chorus apply to Canada or to England or Australia. There have been verses sung in Spanish. There have been anti-pollution verses. I’ll add them o the end of this little article. I feel like encouraging anyone who loves any song not to be ashamed to try making up verses for it. Try some language other than english, if only to remind ourselves that this America of ours is a multi-national place. I’d like to hear verses in the Cherokee language, or Navaho, or Mohawk.

The best thing that could happen to the song would be for it to end up with hundreds of different versions being sung by millions of people who do understand the basic message. If a song leader has time to talk a little bit, he or she might consider starting with the following verse which was made up a few years ago and which as been widely picked up around the country:

This land is your land, but it once was my land
Before we sold you Manhattan Island
you pushed my nation to the reservation,
This land was stole by you from me.

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When I am on stage and sing the previous verse, it often gets applause, but still I find it hard to go right into the well-known chorus after that, so I tell them the story of how in May 1968 in Resurrection City, Washington D.C., Jimmy Collier, a great young black singer from the Midwest, was asked to lead the song. Henry Crowdog of the Sioux Indian delegation came up and punched his finger right in Jimmy’s chest. “Hey, you’re both wrong. It belongs to me.” Jimmy stopped and added seriously, “Should we not sing this song?” Then a big grin came over Henry Crowdog’s face. “No, it’s okay. Go ahead and sing it. As long as we are all down here together to get something done.” and then Jimmy sailed into the chorus and the crowd roared it along with him, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island.”

How can a disinherited people possess the future? Who are the disinherited? Certainly the American Indians are. Certainly African Americans. I say the whole industrialized polluted mankind has, to a certain extent, sold our birthright for a mess of potage. If we are to survive, we must build a world in which the children of every human being on earth can share. (Struggling, sure. But cooperating too, not threatening to kill each other.) This song can help us in our search and our joyous struggle to possess our future.

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!

Various alternate verses of “This Land Is Your Land”:

As I was sailing that Hudson river
I saw around me the tow’ring timber
I saw beneath me all New York’s litter
Still this land was made for you and me.

by Jean Wilcox, Illinois

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I heard the buzzing of a hundred chain saws
And the Redwoods falling, and the loggers
calling–“this land was made, etc.”

I’ve roamed and rambled, and followed the beer cans
From teh toxic cities to the flooded canyons
And all around me were the billboards reading–“This land, etc.” Cho.

The sun came shining, but the “hazes” hid it
And cloaked the factories and cars that did it.
As the smog was drifting, a voice was coughing —
“This land, etc.” Cho.

We’ve logged the forests, we’ve minded the mountains
We’ve damned the rivers, but we’ve built fountains!
We got tin and plastic, and crowded freeways,
This land was made for you and me.
by Jerry J. Smith

These schools are your schools
These schools are my schools
From Elementary to Senior High Schools
From city ghettos to suburban meadows
These schools were made for you and me.

by Jimmy Collier
New York City 1969

This river is your river
This river is my river
She’ll return to us, just as much as we all give her
She needs our love more than gold or silver
This land was made for you and me

by Pete Seeger
On the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater

As I went walking the oilfilled coastline
Along the beaches fishes were choking
The smog kept rolling, the populations growing
This land was made for you and me

by Country Joe MacDonald

“El Sudeoeste (The Southwest)” by Alberto O. Martinez:

Aqui llegaron mis antecesored
Cruzaron aguas gradiosamente
Montaron caballos hasta santa fe
Mi bella tierra es para mi

Esta es mi tierra
Esta es su tierra
Tierra de hombres exploradores
Poblaron pueblos entre los indios
Mi bella tierra es para mi

I come a long way here, I got a long way to go yet
I got things to learn here, I got seeds to sow yet
So many sisters and brothers we still don’t know yet
This land was made for you and me

Mountains and prairies and river shorelines
With everything living, even little microbes.
Fin, fur, and feather, we’re all here together
This land was made for you and me.
by Pete Seeger

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