RICHARD POLENBERG: Of all the songs that had the sweep of humanity in them, "This Land Is Your Land" is surely the most famous. He meant it as a musical rejoinder to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," a World War I song that was written for a Broadway musical. But it wasn't used in the musical, so Irving Berlin updated it for Kate Smith to use on the radio in November 1938.
Woody Guthrie heard it in New York City in 1940, and his first version had, as the last line of each verse, not this land is made for you and me, but rather God bless America for me. His song, unlike Irving Berlin's, juxtaposes what was wrong with America. The big, high walls, the people standing there hungry, with what was right, the golden valleys, the diamond deserts, the wheat fields waving.
He first recorded it in the spring of 1944, by which time you changed the last line of the verse to the one that we know. Since then, it's been recorded countless times, including recordings by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's been used in a Ford Motor Company commercial. Neither presumably knew that this was originally a Marxist rebuttal to God bless America.
The song would live on, though Woody Guthrie died in October 1967, at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, at only 55 years of age. In many respects, his life was a tragic, afflicted as he and his family were by fire, by incurable illness, by broken marriages. But it would be wrong, I think, to equate tragedy with failure.
Despite all that happened to him, he never lost his sense of humor, or his optimism, or his faith in music, or his belief, as he put it in one song titled "There's A Better World A-coming." He used to say that if you used more than two chords in a song, you were showing off.
Well, the song that he wrote, "There's A Better World A-coming," has only one chord. The chord doesn't change. But what a changed world Woody Guthrie imagined, a world in which we'd all be union, and we'd all be free. A world where Jim Crow and race hate would be killed on the scene in the sky.
A world where warlords would be brought down, and scattered on my new ground. So I'll sing this song with you. So if I sing, there's a better word a-coming, yes I know, and I know. You just sing, there's a better world a-coming. Yes, I know.
Then I'll sing the third line, and you sing that same line, better world a-coming. Yes, I know. And if I sing there's a better world a-coming, yes I see and I see. There's a better world a-coming, yes I see. Just follow. Can't go wrong.
(SINGING) There is a better word a-coming, yes I know and I know. There's a better world a-coming, yes I know. Out of the storms, and winds, and rains, lot of sorrow out of pain. There is a better world a-coming, yes I know. There's a better word a-coming, yes I see and I see.
A better world a-coming, yes I see. When we'll all be human, you and we'll all be free. There's a better word a-coming, yes I see. There's a better world a-coming, tell you why, tell you why. There's a better world a-coming, tell you why.
No more Jim Crow, no more race hate on the sea and in the sky. There's a better word a-coming, telling you why. There is a better world a-coming, won't be long, won't be long. A better world a-coming, won't be long.
Going to bring you warlords down, scatter your war birds on the ground. There's a better world a-coming, won't be long. There is a better world a-coming, won't be long.
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Join historian Richard Polenberg in a lecture and concert of the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
This video is part 16 of 17 in the Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music series.