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 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.

Product Details

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

About 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.

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...

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 God Blessed America 1

Chapter 2 Jews Without Money 9

Chapter 3 From Sea to Shining Sea 23

Chapter 4 Come On and Hear! 39

Chapter 5 Oklahoma Hills 59

Chapter 6 Rockets' Red Glare 73

Chapter 7 An Atmosphere That Simply Reeks with Class 87

Chapter 8 If You Ain't Got the Do Re Mi 107

Chapter 9 Storm Clouds Gather 123

Chapter 10 The Faith That the Dark Past Has Taught Us 137

Chapter 11 My Pastures of Plenty Must Always Be Free 155

Chapter 12 Freedom's Road 175

Chapter 13 These Songs Were Made for You and Me 195

Acknowledgments 207

Appendix: The Textual History of "This Land Is Your Land" 211

Recommended Listening 219

Sources 227

Notes 237

Index 253

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