Woody Guthrie: Songwriter of the Working Class

On July 14 we celebrate the birthday of Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma born singer-songwriter famous for writing and performing This Land is Your Land

Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912, and picked up music as a teenager by listening to English and Scottish folk songs, as well as blues, a Black American musical form growing in popularity at the time. As a young man in the 1920s and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Guthrie saw the suffering of millions, a situation worsened by the Dust Bowls that ravaged Oklahoma and surrounding states in the mid 1930s.

In 1935 he joined the migration of “Okies” moving westward toward California in hopes of finding work, and began writing songs about the struggles of working class people. He had a deep sympathy for poor, working people, and hated the injustices and suffering that he saw all around him in capitalist America. He supported workers’ rights throughout his life, both with his art and in labor’s political campaigns of the 30s, 40s and 50s.  In the 1930s he joined a radio show, began recording his original songs, and developed a following as a musician. He also wrote a column for the Communist Party newspaper, People’s World, and, although he probably never joined the party, he was influenced by socialist vision of replacing capitalism with a more just and humane socialist society.

In the 1920s and 1930s Guthrie used his talents to raise awareness to the danger of fascism in Italy and Germany, and often painted on his guitar the now famous phrase: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” As the 1930s wore on and fascist aggression pushed Europe towards war, nationalistic songs like God Bless America by Irving Berlin were frequently played on the radio. In 1940, in response to Berlin’s nationalist portrayal of America as a land of freedom ordained by God, he wrote his most famous song, This Land is Your Land. In the original version (much of which is omitted when performed in schools or at patriotic events) he describes a beautiful land created for all people, and critiques the capitalist system that allows the obscene wealth of a few in times of mass hunger and poverty.

Here are the lyrics of Guthrie’s iconic song. His original written lyrics had the line “God blessed America for me,” which he replaced with “This land was made for you and me” in his live performances.

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

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie, 1943 (credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Aumuller)