A narrative history of the writing of “This Land Is YourLand” and “God Bless America” that uncovers the conflicts and common groundbetween two classic patriotic songs
February, 1940. After a decade of worldwide depression,World War II had begun in Europe and Asia. With Germany on the march and Japanat war with China, the global crisis was in a crescendo. America’s topsongwriter, Irving Berlin, had captured the nation’s mood a little more than ayear before with his patriotic hymn “God Bless America.”
Woody Guthrie was having none of it. Near-starving andpenniless, he was traveling from Texas to New York to make a new start. As heeked his way across the country by bus and by thumb, he couldn’t avoid Berlin’ssong. Some people say that it was when he was freezing by the side of the roadin a Pennsylvania snowstorm that he conceived of a rebuttal. It would encompassthe dark realities of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and it would beginwith the lines “This land is your land, this land is my land.”
In This Land That ILove, John Shaw writes the dual biography of these beloved American songs.Examining the lives of their authors, he finds that Guthrie and Berlin had morein common than either could have guessed. Though Guthrie’s image was defined bytrain-hopping, Irving Berlin had also risen from homelessness, having workedhis way up from the streets of New York.
At the same time, ThisLand That I Love sheds new light on our patriotic musical heritage, from“Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Martin Luther King’srecitation from “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorialin August 1963. Delving into the deeper history of war songs, minstrelsy,ragtime, country music, folk music, and African American spirituals, Shawunearths a rich vein of half-forgotten musical traditions. With the aid ofarchival research, he uncovers new details about the songs, including anever-before-printed verse for “This Land Is Your Land.” The result is afascinating narrative that refracts and reenvisions America’s tumultuoushistory through the prism of two unforgettable anthems.