“This Land is Your Land (2019)” as arranged by Matt Sayles follows in the folk music tradition of adding or modifying verses, and changing keys and melodies to reflect new situations, emotions, and current events.
Sayles has long been a fan of Woody Guthrie, and was always intrigued and moved by the lyrics of the original version written by Guthrie in February of 1940, and recorded by Guthrie in 1944. By the time Guthrie’s version was released in the early 50’s, some of his lyrics were deemed controversial by the “red-scare” paranoia of the Cold War era. These lyrics ultimately fell by the wayside in popular covers of the song, leaving many of the progressive ideas and lyrics relegated to music historians, fans, and Guthrie family members to remind listeners of the original intent and vision of “This Land is Your Land.”
Sayles first started performing his version of “This Land is Your Land” in the summer of 2018 for two reasons: The Trump administration’s attack on public lands and National Monuments, and the administration’s malevolent immigrant “child separation” policy. By august of 2018, Bear’s Ears National Monument had been essentially eradicated and half of Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument had been revoked for the direct benefit of the resource extraction industry. At the same time, the administration’s “child separation” policy was in full horrifying force, leaving infants, toddlers, and children imprisoned in jails and separated from their parents along the U.S./Mexico Border. The demagoguery, race-baiting, and jingoism directed at asylum seekers searching for a better life and escaping violence in their own nations (which in itself was linked to decades of US intervention and failed policy in Central America) had hit a fever pitch, and Sayles was moved to start performing a minor key version of the song, including some of Guthrie’s “controversial” lyrics. While taking care to retain Guthrie’s original intent, in some areas, Sayles also added his own lyrics to reflect where our country stands at this turning point in our history.
(The selections below are excerpted from "The Story of 'This Land is Your Land' by Nick Spitzer, National Public Radio, February 15th 2012")
“Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Okla. He recorded ‘This Land Is Your Land’ during a marathon April 1944 session in New York for Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records. Guthrie was on shore leave from the Merchant Marines, one of his many occupations during the Depression and war years.
A man happier on the road than at home, he'd walked, hitched and ridden the rails all over the country. He went first to the Gulf Coast, then west to California, where he joined the half-million so-called Okies and Arkies — Dust Bowl refugees migrating in search of better lives. Although Guthrie purposefully threw himself into these travels partly to escape family troubles and his disintegrating first marriage, what he saw and experienced as he cris-crossed the country contributed to his emergence as a social commentator.
‘This Land Is Your Land’ wasn't released by Folkways until 1951, but the song was originally written in February 1940, when Woody Guthrie first arrived in New York City from Oklahoma. Guthrie had a keen ear for the recordings of Virginia's Carter Family, and he was not afraid to borrow. A 1930 gospel recording, ‘When the World's on Fire,’ sung by the Carters, must have provided the tune for what would become ‘This Land Is Your Land.’
He was irritated by Irving Berlin's ‘God Bless America,’ sung by Kate Smith, which seemed to be endlessly playing on the radio in the late 1930s. So irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it ‘God Blessed America for Me’ before renaming it ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ Guthrie's original words to the song included this verse:
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.
This land was made for you and me.
This verse was recorded by Moses Asch in 1944, but not released. In fact, Guthrie's recorded version was more or less lost until Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place heard the acetate master during a 1997 transfer of the recording to a digital format. Still, it was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America.
Guthrie's folk-singing son, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger have both made a point of singing the more radical verses to "This Land Is Your Land," also reviving another verse that Guthrie wrote but never officially recorded. This verse was scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf paper now in the possession of daughter Nora's Woody Guthrie Archives.
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.
Nora Guthrie says she has an idea why these words may not have been recorded at the 1944 session — and why the 'private property' verse that was recorded was not issued. ‘This is the early '50s, and [U.S. Sen. Joseph] McCarthy's out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material,’ she says. ‘If my dad had done the recording, I don't think it would have meant anything to him if he was imprisoned, actually,’ she says. ‘He was quite used to living without and having nights in prison and things like that. ‘