This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

by John Shaw
     
 

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February, 1940: After a decade of worldwide depression, World War II had begun in Europe and Asia. With Germany on the march, and Japan at war with China, the global crisis was in a crescendo. America’s top songwriter, Irving Berlin, had captured the nation’s mood a little more than a year before with his patriotic hymn, “God Bless

Overview


February, 1940: After a decade of worldwide depression, World War II had begun in Europe and Asia. With Germany on the march, and Japan at war with China, the global crisis was in a crescendo. America’s top songwriter, Irving Berlin, had captured the nation’s mood a little more than a year before with his patriotic hymn, “God Bless America.”

Woody Guthrie was having none of it. Near-starving and penniless, he was traveling from Texas to New York to make a new start. As he eked his way across the country by bus and by thumb, he couldn’t avoid Berlin’s song. Some people say that it was when he was freezing by the side of the road in a Pennsylvania snowstorm that he conceived of a rebuttal. It would encompass the dark realities of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and it would begin with the lines: “This land is your land, this land is my land….”

In This Land That I Love, John Shaw writes the dual biography of these beloved American songs. Examining the lives of their authors, he finds that Guthrie and Berlin had more in common than either could have guessed. Though Guthrie’s image was defined by train-hopping, Irving Berlin had also risen from homelessness, having worked his way up from the streets of New York.

At the same time, This Land That I Love sheds new light on our patriotic musical heritage, from “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Martin Luther King’s recitation from “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Delving into the deeper history of war songs, minstrelsy, ragtime, country music, folk music, and African American spirituals, Shaw unearths a rich vein of half-forgotten musical traditions. With the aid of archival research, he uncovers new details about the songs, including a never-before-printed verse for “This Land Is Your Land.” The result is a fascinating narrative that refracts and re-envisions America’s tumultuous history through the prism of two unforgettable anthems.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
08/26/2013
Shaw’s meandering book simply retells the well-known story that Woody Guthrie wrote his epic “This Land Is Your Land” as a rejoinder to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Side by side, he traces the similarities between Berlin’s and Guthrie’s upbringings, comparing some of the forces that may have led each writer to what would eventually become his most recognizable song. Berlin was a Russian émigré who rose from homelessness to wealth, and Guthrie fled the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and a broken family to fame and something like fortune in New York City. When they were young, both men “busked for money, making up parodies of popular songs, and were known for their quick wit and eagerness to entertain.” Berlin wrote “God Bless America” for Kate Smith so that she could have a “special song for her annual Armistice Day broadcast.” Guthrie wrote the first draft of his anthem in February 1940 after spending days frozen on the streets and not feeling as if he lived in “sweet America.” He cast his lyrics in a tune modified from the Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire,” in his early sarcastic response to Berlin’s song. Along the way, Shaw digresses unprofitably into discussions of other anthems that have shaped America: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Shaw’s uninspiring book loses its thread in its unfocused structure and reveals no important new insights about the songs, the singers, or their relation to each other. Agent: Paul Bresnick, Paul Bresnick Literary. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

— One of The Atlantic’s Notable Releases of Fall 2013 —

“Entertaining and informative.” New York Times Book Review

“Engaging… Shaw wields an impressive grasp of American musical history.” Boston Globe

“[Shaw] is particularly good at nailing down the melodic ancestors for these Great American Anthems and for tracing the various revisions Berlin and Guthrie made to their songs along the way… This Land That I Love traverses, in a relatively small number of pages, the whole canvas of America.” Slate

“[Shaw] effectively connects [‘This Land Is Your Land’] to earlier anthems… Ultimately, This Land That I Love is about more than two songs, or the two men who created them.” Daily Beast

“It’s a lyrical mix of folklore, Americana, history, music theory, and pop culture that tracks how two supposedly opposing songs end up in the same place, on a short list of the best ditties ever written about the American experience.” Biographile

“Within a frame of the deepest familiarity, John Shaw rescues forgotten stories and excavates stories never told before. The book is generous, open, questing, and blazingly incisive: with a sentence, maybe two or three, he gets to the heart of such unsolved mysteries as blackface, the concept of folk, or the loop of celebrity and history in modern life.” —Greil Marcus, music critic and author of Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces

“A fine work written in an easygoing and appealing style. Shaw takes the reader on an exhilarating tour of the rich and multifaceted legacy of American song. It is sure to appeal to all who love good music and lively well crafted history.” —Real Change News

"Blurring the lines between American “folk” and “popular” music, (Duke Ellington
once said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind) comes This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems (Public Affairs) by John Shaw. Using the two iconic American songs – “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land” – composed just a year apart (1939 and 1940 respectively), Shaw tells the history of the songs and their composers. The book has 274 pages but the basic text is just over 200, and the print is large, so it’s an easy-read." —Steve Ramm, "Anything Phonographic"

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-10
The juxtaposition of two of America's most enduring national anthems. The beginning of this provocative history of Woody Guthrie's persistent folk song and elementary school staple "This Land is Your Land" and Irving Berlin's overly sentimental "God Bless America" is a visceral scene. Writes music and theater critic Shaw, "Woody Guthrie was worried he might freeze to death. Twenty-seven years old and almost completely unknown, he was hitchhiking to New York and had been stuck outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, standing for hours in a snowstorm, waiting for someone, anyone, to pick him up." It's also a supposition, one of many that the narrative is built around: "Some people say that it was when he was freezing on the side of the road that he started thinking about a rebuttal [to "God Bless America"], a song that would give vent to his leftist politics." What people, exactly? From there, this is a by-the-books (lots of books, with little original research) retelling of a story most folk-music fans know already. Shaw tries hard to weave tenuous threads between Berlin, the wealthy, internationally famous songwriter, and Guthrie, the singer/songwriter with a chip on his shoulder and a bunch of Carter Family melodies in his head. Berlin's story doesn't resonate well here; even 40-something years gone, Guthrie casts a very long shadow. Shaw does unearth an interesting alternative version of "This Land is Your Land" from the Woody Guthrie Archives. Written in the 1950s, it loses much of its politics, substituting mystical imagery about fertility and joy. For readers who want to delve deeply into one of these two specific songs, this book is a pleasant, harmless diversion. More casual readers would be better served by Joe Klein's 1980 biography or, better yet, Woody's own 1943 story, Bound For Glory. Shaw tries to pull off the same trick here as Alan Light did with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in The Holy or the Broken (2012), but there's too little weight here to justify the act.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781610392235
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
11/05/2013
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
1,240,477
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

February, 1940: Twenty-seven years old, penniless, and almost completely unknown, Woody Guthrie was worried he might freeze to death. Hitchhiking from Texas to New York in the hopes of a fresh start, he found himself stuck in a snowstorm outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He stood for hours in the cold, waiting for someone, anyone, to pick him up.

Throughout the trip, jukeboxes and radios had blared Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America.” With its gentle, pastoral lyric and gracefully rising and falling melody set to a stirring march rhythm, Woody hated it. He despised the Hit Parade—he called it “sissy music”—but it was rare for any particular song to irritate him so much.

Some people say that it was when he was freezing on the side of the road that he decided to write a rebuttal. The Southwestern landscape and his years of wandering would figure prominently. It would talk about the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Even a job he had worked in Texas as a sign painter would make it in. It wasn’t yet the song we know today—a jaunty sarcasm popped from the first draft—but the majority of the lyrics were there when he sat to write it down later in New York. Including the first lines:

“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island...”

Guthrie might not have known that the author and composer of “God Bless America,” Irving Berlin, had lived through deprivation comparable to his own...

Meet the Author


John Shaw has written on music and theater for the Los Angeles Review of Books and Chicago Reader. He has written many songs and performed them in many contexts. He lives in Seattle with his family.

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