Or wouldn’t he? Who knows? I think most of us folkies have heard that Woody Guthrie wrote, “This Land Is Your Land” (originally titled “God Blessed America”) as a response to Irving Berlin’s 1939 hit song “God Bless America.” Guthrie wrote his song in protest against a pop tune he disdained and thought somewhat insincere. Woody, after all, observed that millions of Americans might not feel so blessed, still having a rough time as the lingering effects of The Great Depression stressed the blessing. While Woody was hitchhiking east he was repeatedly forced to listen to Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America,” playing on every jukebox, radio, and record player he passed. That inspired Guthrie to punctuate Mr. Berlin’s missive with a ballad that told the story from his personal point of view. Pete Seeger tells me that Woody wrote the song in a Pennsylvania diner in February of 1940, and that Irving’s song was probably more inspiration than consternation.
At the surface it would seem hard to find similarities between Irving and Woody, although, I guess there are some. Both had tough beginnings. Berlin (Israel Baline) was born in Temun (Siberian) Russia in 1888. That’s like Okemah, Oklahoma with a slightly less balmy climate. Born in 1912, teenaged Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was passed between various relatives and friends as his mother ailed. Then, bound for glory, guitar in hand, Woody took to the hobo life, becoming a successful radio personality on KFVD in Los Angeles in 1937. Four-year-old Izzy Baline moved to New York where at age 14 he sang songs on street corners and cafes, taking a job as a singing waiter in 1906, and later, of course, becoming the quintessential Tin Pan Alley composer, lyricist and publisher. For the record (no pun) I admire many folk and popular songwriters (hey – note the numerous popular songs in Rise Up Singing). There can be value in these ditties (for example “Over The Rainbow” by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, page 31 of Rise Up) with the ability to inspire, enlighten, divert and amuse. You take inspiration where you find it. Although many folksingers rightly stress the message, I am amused how many are shocked to be reminded they charge to play those songs at concerts, and sell CDs. Commerce – in folk? They may belong to ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC to make a few shekels from their work, keep a roof over their heads, or feed and clothe the new baby. (Don’t let this get around, I’ve heard that many actually want to make it in show biz!).
As Arlo notes, his father’s song did get edited with time. For example, a verse about the relief office is not much sung nowadays. It’s ironic that “This Land Is Your Land” and “God Bless America,” are often found on the same musical programs. And for the record (okay, pun this time) both songs have done well in the royalty and residual departments. Although a mega-hit (the term not yet invented) in 1939, Berlin had written “God Bless America” back in 1918 for an all-soldier show called Yip, Yip, Yaphank, from which it was deleted. In 1938, Kate Smith asked Berlin if he happened to have any patriotic songs for an Armistice Day radio broadcast. With a few edits, and a world war looming, her Columbia recording became a multimillion-selling hit. Berlin donated the royalties to support the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. Woody Guthrie wrote his book Bound For Glory in 1943 and in wartime volunteered for the U. S merchant marine service from 1943-1945. “This Land Is Your Land” was really first introduced to the public by The Weavers. The New Christy Minstrels, (also like Kate Smith, on Columbia Records), made one of the popular recorded versions in 1962. “Roll on Columbia” indeed!
In 1983 at the passing of Ira Gershwin, I was somewhat perplexed (miffed) at a backhanded Dan Rather eulogy of the lyricist that had been written by my old friend Peggy Noonan, who prior to her White House speech writing days was pounding out Rather’s CBS radio spots. She and I were companions in college, and occasionally kept in touch. Rather’s take (Noonan’s prose) was in the realm of, Oh, wasn’t it sad that poor Ira had to live in the shadow of his genius brother, George. Well, poor Ira my ass. Sure, George was a genius, but Ira was a superb lyricist, with more than a touch of genius of his own. The test? Just try to imagine any Gershwin song with any other lyrics. Go ahead Peggy, improve on “’S Wonderful.” I called Peg from the office of The Songwriters Hall of Fame and made the mistake of telling her all this. She took it well. We didn’t talk again for years. Not all songs are worth a second listen, but you know good ones when they grab you.
In this realm, I will pass along some advice given me by the late, great lyricist Sammy Cahn. If you want to practice writing lyrics, he told me, there is no better exercise than that of taking an existing famous melody, and trying your hand at writing new words to the song. It is excellent practice. Or, take a tip from Woody. If you don’t like someone else’s lyrics, just give it your own spin. After all, who was it who said there’s no business like show business?