The iconic song is often considered America’s alternative national anthem but is currently the subject of a copyright dispute, intended to keep it out of the public domain. Familiar to virtually every schoolchild, folksinger Woody Guthrie’s famous theme, “This Land Is Your Land”, has been sung everywhere from a Jeep Super Bowl commercial to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and even by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial at a pre-inaugural concert for President Obama.
But at present Guthrie’s most popular composition is not “made for you and me” because the copyright is owned by a corporation that charges licensing fees for use of the song. Now the same New York law firm that successfully fought to put “Happy Birthday” in the public domain is seeking to do the same for “This Land Is Your Land”, claiming the corporation’s copyright is invalid.
This particular legal dispute is rich with irony – Guthrie’s daughter is on the side of those who would keep the song from belonging to the public. She told the New York Times, ““Our control of this song has nothing to do with financial gain. It has to do with protecting it from Donald Trump, protecting it from the Ku Klux Klan, protecting it from all the evil forces out there.” There is history there - Woody Guthrie once rented an apartment from Donald Trump’s father, and wrote a song excoriating his landlord.
Even more ironic, given Woody Guthrie’s history, is the effort to maintain the song’s status as private property and prevent the public from using it without paying. Guthrie, the son of a middle class Oklahoma real estate developer, became radicalized during the Depression and the Dust Bowl migration to California in the mid-1930’s. While he never became a member of the Communist Party, Guthrie enthusiastically supported its efforts in the United States by writing articles for the Party’s house organ, The Daily Worker, and performing at Party rallies.
In a letter to his wife Guthrie once wrote, “The big rich landlords, gambling lords, rulers and owners are cussing the Communists loud and long these days. The Communists always have been the hardest fighters for the trade unions, good wages, short hours, nursery schools, cleaner workshops and the equal rights of every person of every color. Communists have the only answer to the whole mess. That is, we all ought to own and run every mine, factory, timber track . . .”
Meanwhile around this time, Josef Stalin, wary of Hitler’s rise, sought to advance the cause of the Soviet Union with potential Western allies. In the United States, one tactic was the efforts of the Communist Popular Front that cultivated Leftist themes through American popular culture. The Popular Front influence was evident in the themes of some of the era’s popular plays, novels, and Hollywood films. Music, especially folksinging, was part of this effort. Folksongs, considered little more than “hillbilly music” in the white culture and “race music” in the black culture before the 1930’s, were elevated to “authentic” expressions of the working class, available to everyone. The idea of corporations owning music would have been considered heresy to the Popular Front.
It was in this milieu that Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land”. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the song was not intended as a patriotic anthem; rather, it was a protest song and a rejoinder to one of the most popular songs of the day. As Guthrie travelled from California to New York, on radios everywhere he heard Irving Berlin’s openly patriotic “God Bless America”, written at the end of World War I and reintroduced on Armistice Day 1938 as a response to the rise of Hitler.
Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beillin, fled the anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia as a boy and grew up in the New York City tenements, poorer than Woody Guthrie. Through his songwriting, Berlin realized the American dream, and he expressed his gratitude during World War II by donating all the royalties to “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts of America.
Woody Guthrie hated “God Bless America”, and it must have grated on him to hear it over and over as he crossed the country. His response to Berlin’s song was “This Land Is Your Land”, and given the histories of the two songwriters, their alternative views of America are telling.
Today, when schoolchildren and their teachers, unaware of the song’s Marxist roots, lift their voices in praise of “the redwood forests and gulfstream waters…that belong to you and me”, they rarely sing another verse of the song, part of Guthrie’s thinly veiled attack on private ownership,
“As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”
As those young schoolchildren sing their paean to America, the moral hypocrisy surrounding the copyright dispute to keep “This Land Is Your Land” out of public hands is no doubt lost on them.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here