Track of the Day: 'This Land Is Your Land,' Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

Here’s a footnote to your posting of “This Land Is Your Land” you may find interesting. This part you may already know: Woody Guthrie was a registered Communist, that by “This Land Is Your Land” he meant literally that there should be no such thing as private property, and that he wrote the song specifically as a rebuttal to the explosive popularity of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Here’s the footnote: In 1989, the Grammy Awards put Guthrie’s recording into the “Grammy Hall Of Fame,” a category reserved for material that existed before the Grammys existed or that in retrospect was embarrassingly ignored. Then in 1999, they included the recording in a 4-CD set called The Ultimate Grammy Box.

But they censored it! 

They edited out the verse, as most performers always have, that most obviously makes Guthrie’s intentions clear. I found this doubly hypocritical, because the late ‘90s was a period when the music industry was screaming about censorship and the attempt to curtail free expression.

Here are the two versions of the song.  First, the complete original.  The relevant verse begins at about 1:30. [Embedded above]

And here is the version that was on the Grammy CD, with verses reshuffled, the refrain repeated, the relevant verse gone, and a fadeout at the end:

That’s what got my attention when I first heard this version; songs that fade at the end did not exist in 1947, and someone like Guthrie would never have considered ending a song that way.

Update from a reader, James Napoli: “Here’s an oral history that gives the full backstory to how Bernie Sanders came to record a reggae version of that song with a bunch of Vermont musicians back in 1987.”