This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

John Shaw

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 161039223X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

February, 1940: After a decade of worldwide depression, World War II had begun in Europe and Asia. With Germany on the march, and Japan at war with China, the global crisis was in a crescendo. America’s top songwriter, Irving Berlin, had captured the nation’s mood a little more than a year before with his patriotic hymn, “God Bless America.”

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.

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name under which he announced it when he performed it on the air on October 20, 1937. The next day he got a letter of complaint from a man named Howell Terence. Woody was so shaken that he read it on his program: “You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your ‘Nigger Blues.’ I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person or persons of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today.” Woody tore his song sheet

Columbia,” which came historically between “Chester” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” stands between them in its approach to God as well, neither boasting of Heaven’s perpetual favor nor doubting it, but saying simply, “In Heaven we place a manly trust.” Other anthems register a divine presence more mystically. The most uncanny image in America’s collection might be the allusion to the Gospel of Luke in “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” In Luke 19:40, Jesus says that if his disciples “should hold their

country was weaving “God Bless America” deeply into the fabric of daily life. Lions Clubs sang it at every meeting. The Georgia state superintendent of schools declared it Georgia’s official school song and sent mimeographed copies to every school in the state. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, passed an ordinance requiring that all public performances by bands include “God Bless America.” People discussed its superiority to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a national anthem—it was simpler, catchier, and easier

Review of Books. His editorial acuity made the book better, as did other leads he put me on to. Thanks to Eric Weisbard, Ann Powers, and Jasen Emmons of the EMP Pop Conference, where I first presented portions of the book. I tested other sections at the It’s About Time Writers Reading Series at the Ballard Branch of the Seattle Public Library; thanks to Esther Helfgott. Other passages first appeared in Bloomberg View, thanks to Mary Duenwald. Judy Bell of the Richmond Organization, administrator

World’s Columbian Exposition. See Chicago World’s Fair “Yankee Doodle,” 5, 45–46, 62–64, 74, 132, 166, 204 and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” 95–96 as children’s song, 137 loss of popularity of, 137, 176 “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (Cohan), 84, 166, 200 “The Yiddisha Professor” (Berlin), 44 Yip Yip Yaphank (revue; Berlin), 85–86, 106, 123, 126, 136, 162, 178 “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (Cohan), 84 “You’re All Right, Teddy” (Cole and Johnson), 144 “You’re Easy to Dance With” (Berlin), 163

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