This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems
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Woody Guthrie was having none of it. Near-starving and penniless, he was traveling from Texas to New York to make a new start. As he eked his way across the country by bus and by thumb, he couldn’t avoid Berlin’s song. Some people say that it was when he was freezing by the side of the road in a Pennsylvania snowstorm that he conceived of a rebuttal. It would encompass the dark realities of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and it would begin with the lines: “This land is your land, this land is my land….”
In This Land That I Love, John Shaw writes the dual biography of these beloved American songs. Examining the lives of their authors, he finds that Guthrie and Berlin had more in common than either could have guessed. Though Guthrie’s image was defined by train-hopping, Irving Berlin had also risen from homelessness, having worked his way up from the streets of New York.
At the same time, This Land That I Love sheds new light on our patriotic musical heritage, from “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Martin Luther King’s recitation from “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Delving into the deeper history of war songs, minstrelsy, ragtime, country music, folk music, and African American spirituals, Shaw unearths a rich vein of half-forgotten musical traditions. With the aid of archival research, he uncovers new details about the songs, including a never-before-printed verse for “This Land Is Your Land.” The result is a fascinating narrative that refracts and re-envisions America’s tumultuous history through the prism of two unforgettable anthems.
the low moisture and high winds. The coming of agriculture changed that. The first three decades of the twentieth century saw millions of acres of grassland plowed for farms. Rising wheat prices, increasing automation, and unusually high rainfall made farming viable in what an 1823 map had called the Great American Desert. But the drought snatched the desert back. The lack of rain in 1933 and 1934 broke records. Without the ancient grass to hold the topsoil in place, the wind picked up the dirt
workers on the bum. This is a pushbutton civilization and Wall St. is where the button is. Wall St. is where the workers git worked on an the reapers git reaped—an the farmers git plowed under. Woody’s “dialect” prose was in the tradition of James Whitcomb Riley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and he could tone it up or down at will. When he responded to a report in the Los Angeles Times that had accused migrant workers of flocking to California in search of easy access to “relief,” Guthrie turned
fellow-beings.” With households putting several people into every small room, most of them without “any provision or possibility for the admission of light and air,” the “utterly dark, close, and unventilated” buildings were bursting. The Jewish section—the Lower East Side—was the most crowded of all. “The tenements grow taller, and the gaps in their ranks close up rapidly as we cross the Bowery and, leaving Chinatown and the Italians behind, invade the Hebrew quarter.” People crowded into the
elegant and deeply moving book Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir that her parents had genuinely believed, in the summer and fall of 1940 and well into the next year, that the Germans would win. With Europe gone, with Rommel in North Africa, Hitler seemed unstoppable, even if commentators called the Battle of Britain a draw. Eventually, so went their worst imaginings, he would conquer England, then Canada, then “make an arrangement” with the United States that would amount to conquest. And if
down, he volunteered for the branch of the service with the highest per capita fatality rate, the underdefended Merchant Marine; he thought, probably rightly, that he would have more personal freedom and be happier in that service than in the regular Army. He signed up with his friend Cisco Houston, a veteran Merchant Mariner who had lost his brother and fellow Mariner, Slim, in the war; Cisco’s friend Jimmy Longhi signed on as well. The trio shipped out in June, transporting troops and weapons