This Land Is Your Land : Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song by Robert Santelli. Guthrie's life has already been well-documented, notably in Joe Klein's definitive biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, and somewhat less reliably in Guthrie's own Bound For Glory, and there's nothing here that will come as a revelation. A pre-first world war child from Oklahoma, Guthrie was a restless drifter for most of his life. He travelled the roads and railways of the U.S. as a hobo, had very little time for social niceties, cultivated an unkept and unwashed appearance, was unwilling or unable to maintain relationships and, in his thirst for adventure, ill-treated and neglected his three wives and eight children on a regular basis. In later life he drank excessively and his behaviour became ever more erratic, due in no small measure to the onset of Huntington's Disease, the appalling condition that eventually took his life in October 1967 aged 55.
He was also a man of steadfast social conscience, a prolific songwriter whose work has inspired successive generations of artists to speak out against social injustice. Most of his best work is associated with the desperate 30s, dust-bowl, depression-era chapter in America's history and, but for one song in particular, it is conceivable that Guthrie may perhaps not be considered as important and influential a figure in popular music history as he is today. That song is 'This Land Is Your Land' and Santelli employs the origins and subsequent ongoing development of this iconic work as the central theme in his book around which he adds the relevant episodes in Guthrie's life as well as that of the other protagonists in the story – Irving Berlin, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan among them.
Irving Berlin penned 'God Bless America' at the end of the first world war, but sensing that America had had enough of patriotic songs, stashed it away and didn't resurrect it until 1939 and the beginning of the second world war when one Kate Smith, apparently America's favourite radio personality of the time, sang it on air and it soon became unstoppably popular. Woody Guthrie was listening and the song jarred with him. He considered its overly-patriotic and uncritical tone a false comfort to a population where poverty, economic corruption and social injustice were in evidence for all those who bothered to look. In response he wrote a song which he initially called 'God Blessed America' and which soon became known as 'This Land Is Your Land'. It had an easy-on-the-ear tune and was a lyrical tirade against inequality and a rallying cry for social cohesion.
A genuine protest song. But, given no real prominence in Guthrie's repertoire and endlessly revised, it was several years before its potential as a song for our times began to be recognised. Pete Seeger played no small part in championing both Guthrie and 'This Land' in particular as did Bob Dylan a decade or so later and then Bruce Springsteen after him. Santelli describes how, over the years, the song's sentiments have been interpreted to suit the cause of whichever beleaguered faction of society has adopted it, how verses have been deleted and new ones added to a point where Seeger rightly describes it as a “living, breathing musical document”. It has become the song that Woody Guthrie is most well-known for and, in these times when social injustice, inequality and economic corruption appear as prevalent as ever, it still has the power to resonate and stir the emotions.
The book concludes with a moving description of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performing 'This Land Is Your Land' complete, at Seeger's insistence, with the original lyrics at Barack Obama's inauguration. As a song it is simple and straightforward enough to appeal to all ages and to all levels of musical appreciation. And the lyrics, while personal and true to Guthrie's experience are also wide-open to a level of interpretation that obviously moves people's hearts and souls. This book tells a fascinating story very well indeed. It's also a beautifully produced book with a generous number of illustrations and drawings as well as a tear-out poster in the back of Guthrie posing with his famous “This Machine Kills Fascists” acoustic guitar.