This Land Was Made for You & Me: A History

Happy Fourth! Today I thought I’d share a brief history behind the American Anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” written by Woody Guthrie. You can read the full essay below or check it out on my instagram page. After the essay I have a few links to recordings and a picture book to sing along to the song.

In the hardest moments of human history, people have come together, singing, to lift and share their hardships and sorrows. Folk songs have often been expressions of radical ideas and frustrations of the common man. In singing together we yield a mighty sword of humanity. This radical and uniting power drove Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land was Made for You and Me” to become one of America’s most cherished anthems.

The great American folk musician Woody Guthrie was born into a relatively well off family, but like most Americans, they lost all their money when the Great Depression hit. Living through the Dust Bowl and Great Depression profoundly influenced his work, and he sang about the hardships he lived through and witnessed. In search for work, he took to the road, singing as he went.

Of Guthrie’s songs John Steinbeck wrote, “Woody is just Woody. He is a voice with a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people… there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

After 10 long years of economic depression, the song “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin became extremely popular on the radio. Guthrie couldn’t stand to hear the overly optimistic lyrics as he saw the extreme poverty and desperation that plagued the nation.

Borrowing from a familiar folk tune (“when the world’s on fire”), he penned new lyrics in response to Berlin’s hit song. Guthrie’s song would become “This Land”, although the song would go through several changes before becoming the beloved American anthem.

In its first unpublished iteration, Guthrie originally finished each verse with the refrain, “God Blessed America for Me”, directly in contrast to Berlin’s “God Bless America”. Guthrie’s refrain changed to “This land was made for you and me”, invoking the undeniable truth that the very idea of America must be for all, and that even if we had nothing else, we are each stewards of this beautiful land we share.

An original verse clearly expresses this sentiment. He wrote, “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. That land was made for you and me.”

Another previously unpublished verse shows Guthrie’ wrestling with the juxtaposition of poverty and patriotism. He wrote, “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.”

These two verses were never published or recorded, in part because it would have been considered dangerous at the time, when McCarthy’s hunt for anyone deemed “un-American” could lead to serious legal repercussions.

The song itself has actually had its own share of legal drama separate from its radical political roots. Guthrie always insisted that his songs belong to the people (a strong folk-musician tradition). However, there have been two lawsuits over the rights of the song after Guthrie’s death. The second of the two lawsuits was fought by the same lawyer who argued that “Happy Birthday” was in the public domain.

Like Guthrie, the judge ruled that this song was in fact in the public domain, aligning with Guthrie’s wishes that his songs should be available for anyone who wishes to sing and perform them. Speaking about another song, he once famously wrote, “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

Now, years later, it is considered one of America’s greatest patriotic folk songs, sung by school children, churches, and choirs across the country—all probably unaware of its original verses and radical political origins.

“This Land” was sung by Guthrie’s long-time friend and fellow folk legend Pete Seeger during President Obama’s inauguration celebration. He sang the original, previously unpublished verses. During his performance he incorporated the folk tradition of calling out the lyrics so that the audience could sing along. It was a powerful performance, singing Guthrie’s anthem of an America for all.

When Guthrie recorded the song in 1944, he finished with the verse, “When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling, With the wheat fields waving, the dust clouds rolling, The voice come a-chanting, and the fog was lifting. This land was made for you and me.”

And now as we join together in singing Guthrie’s anthem, we become the distant voices chanting out of the fog of our political past, walking though the land towards progress, unity, and fraternity, all the while affirming his vision that yes, this land truly was made for you and me.


(2002) This Land is Your Land. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. [Web.] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

(2012) Spitzer, Nick. The Story Of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’. NPR. [Web.] Retrieved from NPR, (

If you’re interested in reading more, click the links in the sources for some great further reading!

Here are a few links of some recordings I love:

This is Woody Guthrie’s recording of “This Land”

Here is Pete Seeger and Bruce Springstein performing the song at President Obama’s inaguration celebration. Noticee how he incorporates the folk tradition of calling out the lyrics so that the audience can sing along!

And if you are interested, here is a link to a wonderful picture book to sing along to.

In case you are interested in another fourth of july activity, check out this free printable coloring page and sheet music for “My Country Tis of Thee”

Happy 4th, and happy singing! -Lauren