The day was February 23, 1940 and Woody Guthrie was in New York City. He’d arrived a few weeks earlier having hitchhiked from Pampa, Texas, a journey begun just after New Year’s Day.
On that day, Woody’s “home” was Hanover House, a cheap hotel on the corner of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, near Times Square. He’d already worn out his welcome as a house guest with the few people he knew in the city and there were no job prospects on the horizon. Woody sat alone in his room, frustrated, sad and annoyed. The combination proved to be inspirational.
Woody’s annoyance however, was not with his situation. It was with a song.
For several months now – starting back in Pampa and following him all the way across the country – it had seemed to Woody that every time he was near a radio or a jukebox, Kate Smith’s 1939 recording of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” would soon be playing.
The song bothered him. To Woody, it was simplistic, encouraged complacency and definitely did not apply to the people he knew or the America that he’d seen and lived in and travelled through, especially over the past several years. Woody had come to the conclusion that a response, maybe a “patriotic” song of his own would soon be necessary and on that February day, the words poured out of him.
When he was done, he’d written six verses, each one ending with the line: “God blessed America for me.” At the bottom of the page he added: “All you can write is what you see” and then the date: February 23, 1940.
When it came time to set his lyrics to a tune, as Woody often did, he borrowed one. This time the melody he adapted to his words came from a Carter Family song called “When The World’s On Fire.”
Later that year, when Woody started recording his Dust Bowl-inspired ballads, “God Blessed America” did not appear. But, in April 1944 – near the end of a multi-day series of marathon recording sessions for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records – Woody recorded a “new song” that he called: “This Land Is Your Land.” The “new” song, it turned out, was the old “God Blessed America” with a new title and a much-improved last line to each verse: “This land was made for you and me.”
The first line of “This Land…” – “This land is your land, this land is my land” -and many of the lines in the other verses were and still are, as the song is sung today, exactly the same as when Woody Guthrie first wrote them down on paper in that New York City hotel room on February 23, 1940.
I’m not quite sure how the PEA discipline committee would feel about the plagiarism involved here but they’re both great songs anyway!