Some have called “This Land Is Your Land” an alternative national anthem. Others say it’s a Marxist response to “God Bless America.” It was written and first sung by Woody Guthrie. Over time, it’s been sung by everyone from Lady Gaga to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Folklorist Nick Spitzer has the story of an American classic.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Okla. He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” during a marathon April 1944 session in New York for Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records. Guthrie was on shore leave from the Merchant Marines, one of his many occupations during the Depression and war years.
Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, Guthrie heard church hymns, outlaw ballads, blues, fiddle tunes and popular music. The Guthries had been fairly prosperous — Woody’s father was a small-time politician and businessman — but the family unraveled in the topsy-turvy oil economy of the ‘20s and '30s. The Guthrie family relocated to Pampa, Tex., after Woody’s mother was committed to a mental institution for a mysterious nervous condition. That’s when Woody took to the road.
As a boy, he’d already proven himself to be a gifted street entertainer — dancing, playing guitar and harmonica, making up songs as he went. Words and music became a growing passion for him.