About One of The Most Beautiful Songs Ever Written.

During a long, cold drive home from Boston this past weekend, I zoned out on the rhythm and sounds of the road when the familiar opening lines of Springsteen’s cover of This Land is Your Land woke me up from my road-induced stooper. I reached down to turn it up and started thinking about the lyrics, about the land I was driving through.

Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land makes me well up with tears. I try not to get sentimental or patriotic, since my relationship with the United States is both overtly romantic and terribly cynical, but when I hear the first opening chords to This Land, I get goose bumps. I get a big, stupid lump in my throat. I have an intense emotional reaction to singing along with it. The lyrics, simple but perfect, catch me and make me sit up straight every single time. I can remember singing it way back in elementary school (like most kids that went to school in the U.S. from 1960 onward) and not being all that impressed. Now, now that I have read about Guthrie, have learned about his life, his art and his legacy, I can’t help myself. There is no other piece of literature, song or art that so amazingly describes what I see in the landscape, physical and otherwise, of the country in which I was born.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From 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
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
Saying this land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

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

Guthrie wrote the song in reaction to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, as an angry response to Berlin’s fluffy and vague lyrics. In the context of the time in which is was written (1941) and by whom (Guthrie was well associated with the Communist Party in 30’s and 40’s during the Great Depression and into WWII), the song is a gorgeous tribute to the vast, plentiful land in which the Unites States was born from. He evokes that enormous landscape not only to remind the listener to really think about the land they’re standing on but also to talk about the ideals of democracy in a very subtle way that is absolutely brilliant. What is also fascinating about the song is the way that other countries have adopted the lyrics to describe their own landscape. The wikipedia page mentions several different versions for Canada, Ireland, Sweden and India. I can’t help but wonder why the song has so much pull for other countries as well.

I can’t mention Woody Guthrie without mentioning Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, a book that should be required reading for anyone remotely interested in American history, is a remarkable and heart-breaking account of Guthrie’s life, death and legacy. As his own American myth, Guthrie’s life is fascinating and his character unlike anyone I’ve read about. While daunting in size and detail, it gives insight into Guthrie as a person without glorifying or demeaning him.

Often, when I am passing through a particularly beautiful piece of land or driving through a particularly depressing part of the U.S., I find myself humming This Lands is Your Land to myself quietly, without irony, just with a sense of wonder and sadness for the land that I am surrounded by.