Eighty-one years ago today, Woody Guthrie composed what some might call an alternate “National Anthem.” Woody composed “This Land is Your Land” at the Hanover House hotel at 6th Avenue and 43rd Street in New York City, shortly after moving there from his native Oklahoma.
I’ve always been a big fan of Woody Guthrie and I, like many Oklahomans, are proud to claim his as “ours.” Discovering through my genealogy research that I am a distant cousin of Woody Guthrie only enhanced the interest I already had in his music, his politics, and his interest in civil rights. As a proud member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 in New York City, I also share his support for and defense of organized labor.
In honor of the anniversary of what is probably his most well-known song, I am sharing a video that I created nine months ago in which I play “This Land.”
My friend and former colleague, Anthony McGill—Principal Clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic—was moved to put into music some of the feelings he had been trying to process in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd. At that time he challenged fellow artists to join him in an initiative he called “Take Two Knees.” The video below was my own contribution, posted at the time on social media.
The video and the introduction below can also be found on my Vimeo site.
Perhaps you learned this song in elementary school as I did. “This Land Is Your Land” is a folk song written by Woody Guthrie, to whom I am a distant cousin. Long before I discovered that he was in my family tree, I felt a certain kinship with this musician, philosopher, activist, and fellow Oklahoman. Unlike him, however, I have lived a life of privilege.
As a young man, Woody’s family joined the “Okies” and “Arkies” and Kansans who packed their meager belongings for, hopefully, better lives elsewhere. These impoverished families saw their homes, crops, livestock, and livelihood literally blow away in the devastating dust storms that plagued our country’s midsection, rendering it uninhabitable in the 1930s. Nineteen years old, this was the beginning of what would be a primarily migrant way of life for Woody and his family, his travels taking him to Los Angeles, later to New York City, and to countless places in between. His vagabond existence, as well as the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, informed his songs. His music became a voice for migrant workers, illegal immigrants, manual laborers, and victims of civil injustice. His songs continue to be used in protests and resistance movements to this day.
The verses of This Land, describing the exquisite and varied physical beauty of our nation, have been memorized by countless school children over the years. Some people are not aware, though, that a few somewhat subversive verses to this song exist. Woody recorded one of these verses when he originally recorded the song in 1944, but that particular verse was not released until much later; another text was found by Woody’s daughter Nora in Woody’s journals. These verses hint at the disparity in “this land” between those whose privileged existence came at the expense of laborers who were often underpaid, overworked, accustomed to substandard work conditions, run out of work camps, and more generally oppressed, overlooked, and marginalized.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me…
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Woody often changed the words of his songs—either intentionally for purposes related to his particular audience or venue, or unintentionally. I thought of these somewhat radical verses above as I recorded this video. In the spirit of Woody’s own artistic license, I came up with my own alternate verse for this particular time when the tremendous anguish, despair, and frustration over the ongoing injustice experienced day after day by those living while Black in America—particularly at the hand of law enforcement–are boiling over.
I’m not of color. I know I’m privileged.
Enjoying freedoms that others dream of.
Those who are like me, join me in saying,
This land was made not just for me.