The poem “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie is originally a seven stanza poem that is often cut short in the recorded versions known to many. The poem’s main element is imagery of America’s landmarks to exorcise an emotion out of the reader. The first four stanzas have a much more celebratory tone compared to the final three. The last three stanzas are cut out, so as to not dampen the joyful tone of the song. The tone of the work takes a more serious tone in the last three stanzas, which are often edited out from recorded versions.
The first part makes the reader feel proud of America by describing some of its national symbols and declaring in the last lines of each stanza. “This land was made for you and me. ” (4,8,12,16. ) These first four stanzas have a common theme of Guthrie taking in America’s beauty while feeling blessed to be in its land. Guthrie describes the sights as “sparkling sands” (10. ) and “golden valley” (7. ) to make the reader feel pleased and almost proud of our land. The first four stanzas have been sung and used to celebrate America in many patriotic settings, such as Fourth of July and Veterans Day.
The last part of the poem has been left out of the mainstream recorded versions and few realize that there are three more stanzas in the original. The last three stanzas take a different tone by describing the land of America in a darker way than the first four. This tone changes the main line “This land was made for you and me” from a joyful voice to a sadder, matter of fact, realization of reality. Guthrie sights of “No Trespassing” signs (18. ) and his people being hungy (20. ) are obviously different from the favorable and pleasant sights in the first part.
Now the final lines that finish these last three stanzas do not have the joyful voice declaring that “this land was made for you and me. ” In the next to last stanza, “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me? ” Guthrie begins to doubt if he really belongs in this land. He identifies himself amongst the less fortunate people in America and realizes that maybe this land is not for everyone.
This stanza allows the reader to view America from another perspective of the “have-nots” while the first four where from the “haves. ” After reading these final three stanzas, reading the poem over again brings upon a bitter sweetness for the first part. To understand the original version of the song, we have to understand Woody Guthrie’s life when he wrote it. According to “Woody Guthrie and His Folk Tradition”, he was born in Oklahoma in 1912 and had plenty of exposure to African Americans and Native Americans while growing up. Ruess 275. ) He eventually moved to Texas to work in the oil industry which is where his talents as a folklorist took root.
Ruess states, “It was in the Panhandle that Woody received his principal exposure to the early commercial hillbilly medium. He now learned to play the guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, fiddle, and drums sufficiently well to travel about the countryside as a member of pick-up country dance bands and in his Uncle Jeff’s magic show. (Ruess 276) He also traveled to California and New York, giving him ample writing points to form the lines in “This Land Is Your Land. ” In Johnny Cash’s recorded version, only the first four stanzas were sung. Even Guthrie edited his version many times, often removing or replacing the last three stanzas. The reasons for Guthrie revising his own version vary, but one reason is that as America came out of World War II. Written in “Is This Song Your Song Anymore”, the relief problem in America had largely disappeared due to the advent of World War II and the jobs it created.
Therefore, Guthrie may have dropped the verse referring to relief because it no longer had as much relevance to the current situation in America as when he first wrote it. Second, Guthrie often forgot or changed words, depending on his mood and memory. ” (Jackson 260. ) The song was a happy and cheerful version that put melody to the poem. Leaving out the last part in mainstream recordings and song singing in classrooms is now understandable because the reality is that America and social issues keep changing, so it is fitting for the song to change as well.
Another possible reason for the song we know versus the song in its originality is that it was a talking point to label its message as communistic. Denisoff wrote of the artists of that time of being of the Far Left, or people’s music by saying, “The proletarian renaissance was collectively oriented. Performers were perceived as part of a class. Practitioners such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seegar, Molly Jackson, and others, were characterized as ‘people’s artists’ or interpreters of working class culture.
One columnist wrote: ‘Sing it Woody, sing it! Karl Marx wrote it, and Lincoln said it, and Lenin did it. You sing it, Woody, and we’ll all laugh together yet. ‘” (Denisoff 431. ) This time is often characterized as a renaissance, revival or civil rights movement. This time period threw Guthrie and other folk artists into left versus right debates that were a constant during the 1950s, thus categorizing their songs as in the left, even sometimes too left. But today, this poem is used as a patriotic cheer to celebrate America.
It is natural for every American, even immigrants looking for the American Dream, to want to be proud of the country. To include the last three stanzas in the song would take away from that celebration and bring about a more somber use of it. When you think of Fourth of July, we celebrate with fireworks and parties, not somber songs that question our greatness. With the current economic and social problems we face today, it would not be surprising to see the original last three stanzas to work their way back into the song.
Denisoff, R S. “Folk Music and the American Left: A Generational-Ideological Comparison.” The British Journal of Sociology 20.4 Dec. (1969): 427-42. Jstor. Web. 27 Dec. 2011. .
Guthrie, Woody. This Land Is Your Land. N.p.: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2011. 249. APUS. ebooks. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.
Jackson, Mark A. “Is This Song Your Song Anymore?: Revisioning Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”.” American Music 20.3 Sept. (2002): 249-76. Jstor. Web. 27 Dec. 2011. .
Ruess, Richard A. “Woody Guthrie and His Folk Tradition.” The Journal of American Folklore 83.329 Sept. (1970): 273-303. Jstor. Web. 27 Dec. 2011. .