This Anthem Was Made For You and Me?

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you this is your world, and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it’s run you down and rolled you over, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. — Woody Guthrie


This song was written as an angry song. — Bruce Springsteen


Even the angry songs are love songs. — Pete Seeger


What will happen to the song now? My guess is, it depends on who sings it, and how, and for what purpose. — Pete Seeger

Inauguration

When Jennifer Lopez sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden in January of this year, it marked the latest use of a much-contested song. Written by Guthrie in 1940, “This Land” has traveled that ribbon of highway far and wide through American culture. As his daughter Nora wrote in the Foreword to a book about Guthrie’s composition, “It’s a song that seems to be open to all kinds of interpretations and manipulations.”[1] In that same book, museum curator and historian Robert Santelli describes “This Land Is Your Land” as a “musical mixed message.”[2] Often (mis)understood as an easy-going, inclusive singalong celebrating the United States as a land of opportunity, Guthrie’s song is in fact a far more complex, strange, even troubling entity.

Jennifer Lopez performs “This Land Is Your Land” at the Inauguration of Joe Biden on January 21, 2021.

From its inception to its latest iterations, “This Land” raises as many questions as it provides easy affirmations. If this song has become a kind of alternative national anthem, it’s a funny sort of one. Which nation, exactly, does it represent? Whose land? What state is sovereign here, if any? Who is the “you and me” in the song? And as “This Land” becomes anthemic, this has only made visible more issues: can an alternative national anthem truly exist? Can such a song slip the knot of patriotic jingoism? Can it fly a musical flag of more flickering potential? Or does it just get folded into official use, appropriated by the very forces it seeks to oppose? “This Land Is Your Land” seems like an intriguingly destabilizing anthem, one that might undercut assertions of uncritical nationalism. This is its great promise. Yet the dangers of “This Land” settling into static and conservative signification persist.

Examining the song’s origins reveals its differences from a typical national anthem. “This Land” began as a satire of Irving Berlin’s maudlin, exceptionalist ballad “God Bless America.” It was an “answer song” that challenged the straightforward, even smug assumptions of Berlin’s tune, which Guthrie loathed. Written in 1918 during US involvement in World War I, “God Bless America” did not gain mass popularity until Berlin resuscitated it during the growing tensions leading up to World War II. In 1938, Kate Smith, a young singer known as the “First Lady of the Radio” and “Songbird of the South,” recorded it. “God Bless America” blared out of jukeboxes and radios (and even on cinema newsreels) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. For Guthrie, hearing the song constantly as he headed to New York City from Pampa, Texas, in search of the next phase of his musical career, it was ultimately “just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver’s seat.”[3]

Guthrie’s answer was originally titled, sardonically, “God Blessed America for Me.” It lampoons the easy patriotism of Berlin’s song. The original closing line of each verse mocked the idea that God had done any such thing. In this sense “This Land” began its life most of all as a song of doubt: about the politics of the United States, about a divine power, and particularly about whether a divine power was guiding the fate of the United States. In the context of the Great Depression, Berlin’s “God Bless America” seemed to shoot the opiate of the masses—religion—right into the veins of the body politic. Guthrie even penned a verse, later dropped by adopters of the song but never entirely forgotten, about the flaws of private property and economic inequality in 1930s America. He expressed a profound skepticism about the United States. Was this land really made for you and me?

Maybe not, if one commonplace iteration is to be believed. As bratty kids have sung to each other for decades now: “I got a shotgun, and you don’t got one / If you don’t get off, I’ll blow your head off / This land was made for only me.” It’s as if without even knowing of the lost socialist verses, they knew that “This Land” needed to be defused ideologically. Folklore, it turns out, isn’t just progressive. It can manifest profoundly conservative attitudes too.

Ironically, over time Guthrie’s song itself became neither a radical critique nor a conservative reaction. It became an anodyne singalong anthem for grade schools and summer camps, its more socialist dimensions removed to render it a liberal encomium, its conservative satire producing, at most, chagrin. The song’s popularization was largely the work of Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger along with Folkways Records impresario Moe Asch and the song publisher Howie Richmond of TRO Music. They believed that Guthrie’s song, without its radical verses, would appeal far beyond radical corners of the music and political world. In the 1950s, a number of progressive educators began to use the song as an alternative national anthem to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Woody’s son Arlo tells a humorous story of singing the song at assemblies while attending the Woodward School in Brooklyn. None of his classmates knew his father had written it.[4] From there, Guthrie’s composition spread far and wide. “This Land” was on its way from satirizing “God Bless America” to becoming a competitor to Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith’s anthem (itself only adopted as the official one of the United States in 1931).

Woody Guthrie’s original lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land,” written in 1940.

So it was that Lopez sang “This Land” at Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021, perhaps by way of Pete Seeger’s performance of the song with Bruce Springsteen at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. As J Lo sang across the National Mall, with a masked, socially distanced audience and a new incoming president listening intently in the very spot where a violent insurrection had taken place a few weeks earlier, her version mostly rang out in the register of affirmation. Yet if one listened more closely to her singing, Lopez’s vocal melismas and slides around the sturdy old melody also hinted at grief and loss. There was a little skepticism lurking around the edges of the song’s sturdy tune. At the end, she suddenly cried out in Spanish, “Una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos”—“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” “This Land”‘s buried radicalism burst forth in full, a vessel for the anger among immigrant populations in the United States at inhumane Trump-era immigration policies.

Lopez’s performance, in fact, drew upon the recent trend of using the song to speak to the plight of immigrants in the United States.[5] She also snuck in a little plug for her party-song-turned-political-commentary-track “Let’s Get Loud,” which she sang at the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show draped in a Puerto Rican flag with children sitting in cages in front of the stage, an allusion to the Trump administration’s family separation policy along the southern US border. Lopez’s presentation of “This Land” suggests that the song’s capacity for protest remains intact. And Guthrie was a good figure to turn to for anti-Trump sentiment. After all, as Guthrie-scholar Will Kaufman uncovered, the songwriter had written a tune criticizing the real estate exploitations of Trump’s father Fred, who was a landlord from whom Guthrie rented an apartment in New York during the 1950s.[6]

But the protest value of “This Land” was not so clear to another group: Indigenous peoples in what became the United States. For them, the adoption of “This Land” as an alternative national anthem has always been deeply problematic. The song’s appearance at the 2021 Inauguration was met with criticism by Indigenous activists who have long noted that Guthrie’s song fails to confront an obvious fact: “this land” didn’t initially belong to those who now claim it. Even as liberal audiences embrace the song and defenders of newer immigrants to the United States sing it as a sign that they too are Americans, Indigenous activists have for years been noting the “blind spot” in the gradual evolution of the song into an alternative national anthem for the United States. As Abenaki writer and musician Mali Obomsawin writes in a 2019 critique, she hears “This Land Is Your Land” on a sour dissonant note. In its friendly, sentimental liberal guise, “This Land” covers up a settler colonialist mentality. By claiming the land was made for you and me, the song renders invisible the genocidal conquests that created the United States in the first place. It becomes a sort of land disacknowledgement. Cancel the song, Obomsawin urges.[7]

Woody Guthrie himself would have been mortified by this critique. As the Guthrie scholar Kaufman noted in a response to Obomsawin, Guthrie grew up in Oklahoma and was quite cognizant of the unjust treatment of Native Americans.[8] Kaufman’s response, alas, has a bit too much liberal self-justification to it, too close to saying that Guthrie’s best friends were Native Americans, so therefore the song could not be problematic. In a more balanced essay, Guthrie biographer Gustavus Stadler contends that when historicized, the song and Guthrie himself are both far too complex to be dismissed out of hand. Rather than defending the song, liberal Americans should pay closer attention to the value of the critique. “The non-Indigenous, especially white Americans,” Stadler writes, “should recognize how the song’s words sound to many Native Americans, and act accordingly—whether that means singing it with a prefatory comment, singing the suppressed verses, not singing it at all, or some other creative and empathic option.”[9]

Even as immigrants and their descendants embrace “This Land” as an alternative anthem that demands their inclusion in the nation, Indigenous activists protest what was originally a protest song. It’s an age-old story of who gets to voice grievances in modern America and on what terms. One wonders, though, when we talk about “This Land,” which version are we actually scrutinizing? “This Land”‘s many versions roam and ramble; they are varied and do not all manifest the same meaning.

Variations

What do the many versions of “This Land” tell us about this much-debated song? They suggest the pliability of Guthrie’s tune, both in his original version and in its long journey through American culture. If, as Benedict Anderson famously argued in his book Imagined Communities, national anthems help to consolidate a nation-state through what he called “unisonance”—the simultaneous singing by members of a polity across time and distance—Guthrie’s version is more about polyvalence.[10]

There are a few recordings of Woody himself singing the song, some unearthed from the archives in only the last few years. They are a striking reminder that popular memory has simplified Guthrie as a songwriter and performer. He did not consider his songs fixed, but rather alive and adjustable. Different lyrics were printed in different songbooks. New words were written for new occasions, such as the Folksay dance choreographed by by Sophie Maslow. The elastic sense of compositional form is, of course, indicative of the folk revival sensibility. Songs were not static texts with stable meanings; they could respond to conditions and needs of the moment.

Woody Guthrie sings “This Land Is Your Land,” with the missing “private property” verse, recording date unknown, discovered during the preparation of The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1, released in 1997 on Smithsonian Folkways.

Even a single version of “This Land” performed by Guthrie contains multitudes. A few years ago, I conducted research at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Just outside the research room, “This Land Is Your Land” plays on repeat as part of an exhibition about Guthrie’s art and life. You would think the song would grow tiresome, but rather it becomes mesmerizing, a kind of incantation that starts to sound not at all like a political tract, but rather like a profound spiritual vision.

Indeed, the song has religious roots. It borrows its melody from a Baptist hymn, “Oh, My Loving Brother,” which then became a commercial song, “When the World’s on Fire” (1930), by the foundational country music band, the Carter Family. The simple melody and chords allow Guthrie to traverse rolling hills of notes, gently undulating up and down in steady motion, puttering along. The use of the Carter Family’s song is also a clever intertextual move for Guthrie, allowing him to link his critique of Berlin’s “God Bless America” to the Carter Family song. In “When the World’s On Fire,” the Carters ask, “Don’t you want to go to heaven / When the world’s on fire? / Don’t you want God’s bosom / To be your pillow?” The world certainly was on fire in 1940, as World War II erupted even as the Great Depression continued, but Guthrie seems to be criticizing both the smug turn to God and nation that Irving Berlin offers and the apocalyptic salvation that the Carter Family presents. Instead of seeking the reassurance of God’s heavenly saving, Guthrie wants Americans to face the pressing problems of this life, in the here and now.

Woody uses the tune, however, to offer words that go far beyond social protest. To be sure, he was writing partly in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and his song offers barbs about private property and trespassing, and about starving people stuck outside of hypocritical churches and seeking governmental aid at relief offices. Guthrie was a communist in spirit, after all (and sometimes even held official party membership). Yet political critique is not the sole purpose of “This Land is Your Land.” Listening to it on repeat, with Guthrie’s melodic bassline plucked on acoustic guitar (inspired by Maybelle Carter) and his laconic singing style, “This Land” becomes a kind of spell: an overwhelming, ecstatic experience of the sublime. It links questions of the nation-state to larger, more existential states of being and becoming. The “sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,” the voice “chanting as the fog was lifting,” the “endless skyway,” the “wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling”—at first, Guthrie possibly wrote these lines satirically, in response to “God Bless America,” but his performance of the song transforms it. The protagonist of the song seems to feel the possibility of something far bigger than himself in the land. It is not his—or anyone’s for that matter—to make. That’s the shift from the original lyric of “God blessed America for me” to the line we all know: “This land was made for you and me.” Only, hearing it over and over again, as I did at the Guthrie Center, that lyric almost starts to sound like it has a a question mark at the end of it. The repeated closing line of the verses and chorus tumble over into wonder and awe. It becomes not an assertion of ownership or of citizenship or even, for that matter, of social criticism and protest. Guthrie’s invocation goes beyond those earthly matters to something else: it becomes almost an image of a person bowing prostrate before the mysteries of the natural world. God didn’t bless this place; but then who is this land for, exactly, and on what terms?

If Guthrie’s own recordings of the song reveal endless complexities and connections the more one listens for them, there is a long list of covers and versions with their own inflections. There are the peppy versions from the 1960s folk revival, bluegrass rollicks, roots rockers rediscovering their roots, children’s music singalongs, slick and polished country music stars adopting the song, Mexican-American versions, Christian fundamentalist takes, Irish nationalist uses, classical music variations, and military band renditions. The musical interpreters are many: Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, both early in his career and during the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour; the Weavers; Peter, Paul and Mary; Odetta; Guy Carawan; Harry Belafonte; Kingston Trio; Cisco Houston; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; the Brothers Four; the Limelighters; the New Christy Minstrels; Trini Lopez; Arlo Guthrie; Country Joe McDonald; Judy Collins; Joan Baez; Holly Near; Johnny Cash; John McCutcheon; Ella Jenkins; Sweet Honey and the Rock; Doc Watson; Oscar Brand; the Irish Brigade; the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; the Waterboys; Billy Bragg; Counting Crows; Los Lobos with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir; Bruce Springsteen; Bing Crosby; Willie Nelson; Anita Kerr; Wanda Jackson; Glen Campbell; Glenn Yarbrough; the Country Gentlemen; Flatt & Scruggs; Nashville Bluegrass Ensemble; Ganstagrass; Elizabeth Mitchell; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; John Mellencamp; Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine; Amir ElSaffar and David Rawlings; the Avett Brothers; Jonatha Brooke; the Nields; Little Feat; Old Crow Medicine Show; Sones de Mexico Ensemble; Jennifer Lopez; Lady Gaga; My Morning Jacket; Neil Young & Crazy Horse; Everclear; Phosphorescent; Lee Greenwood; Mojo Nixon; the Seekers; Raffi; Anthem Lights; Mike Curb Congregation; Rolie Polie Guacamole; Boogers; Louda y Los Bad Hombres; the United States Air Force Singing Sergeants; US Air Force Heritage of America Band; the United States Army Drum and Fife Corps; the Six-Strings Soldiers United States Army Field Band; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Boston Pops Orchestra; Jay and the Americans; David Amram; Chicano Batman; Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

When Pete Seeger and Jimmy Collier played the song during the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign rally, Henry Crow Dog (Sioux) responded afterward that the land had been stolen from his people. As Robert Santelli tells the story, Seeger subsequently considered dropping the song from his repertoire entirely, but he added a verse speaking to the historical issue of settler colonialism and land conquest. Collier would always ask if any Native Americans were present and if they gave permission to sing the song—sometimes they did, sometimes they did not.[11]

But containing “This Land,” by the late 1960s, was impossible. Folksingers had already taken the song in many directions. Odetta sang it at tribute concerts to Woody Guthrie after he died, offering a powerful cry that communicated the deep questioning of the song: was the land really made for someone like her, an African American woman? Ramblin’ Jack Elliott brought the song back to the quietly intense tone of Woody’s original version. Others started to add verses about Native Americans, environmental concerns, the Vietnam War, and much more—likely just as Woody Guthrie likely would have done.

After its popularity during the 1960s folk revival, the song again found new life in popular music of the 1980s when Bruce Springsteen began performing it. “This song was written as an angry song,” he declares at the start of a live version recorded at Nassau Coliseum in 1980. Springsteen doesn’t sing the lost verse about private property, but by ending the chorus’s final words, “you and me,” on a suspended chord, in a musical trick taken from gospel, he adds in the question mark underneath Springsteen and the E Street Band’s arena-rock sound. Harmonica adds to the small curl of skepticism within the anthemic version. There is another version of Springsteen performing the song as well, with a different introduction, at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California, on September 30, 1985. Many would follow “the Boss” in turning to the song as a way to affirm their deeper connections to a radical American tradition or to speak to political troubles of contemporary times.

The song has also shown up many times in more mainstream political culture. Robert F. Kennedy used “This Land” in his 1968 presidential campaign. Sometimes his supporters changed the words to “This Man Is Your Man.” George McGovern used it as a campaign song in the next presidential election cycle of 1972, even quoting it in his Democratic convention acceptance speech. And it wasn’t only liberal politicians who turned to the song. It could be heard at the 1960 Republican National Convention that nominated Richard Nixon to run for president of the United States.[12] Years later, in 1988, George H. W. Bush made use of the song. As with the original version, “This Land” also remains effective for satire. The comedy group JibJab used the song to make a YouTube video parodying 2004 presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry (they wound up being sued by Ludlow Music, which claims copyright on the song, and settled the litigation out of court[13]). In more recent years, Barack Obama used the song while campaigning for president. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quoted it in a tweet about Ilhan Omar’s constituents welcoming her home at the airport in Minnesota after Donald Trump spoke hatefully about her. Way back in 1987, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders sang a version of “This Land” for an album (more like chanted it), with a reggae band backing him. More recently, he too used it in a campaign ad. On the campaign trail, performers such as Ezra Koenig of the band Vampire Weekend have performed it with Sanders.

Two recent versions remind us of the vast ground that “This Land” can cover. The fundamentalist Christian group Anthem Lights recorded the song in 2020 for their album God and Country. Their take on the song transforms Guthrie’s skepticism into a confident assertion of domination. At the end the lead singer even breaks into a rebel yell, a war whoop of conquest. Military band versions are more polished and less obviously assertive, but they too bubble along with nary a doubt as to whom the land belongs. For instance, the Six-Strings Soldiers United States Army Field Band marches confidently through the streets of Detroit and surrounding areas, but it is a bit unclear if they are celebrating the place or invading it.

Maybe most intriguing is the 2005 cover by soul singer Sharon Jones and the band the Dap Kings. The song begins with mournful horns sounding like they are at a funeral parade. Over a slinky R&B re-arrangement, Jones adds numerous blues notes to the melody. Her dominant sevenths and her thirds sung in between major and minor notes undercut any sense of domination. They defy it. This isn’t Woody Guthrie’s tale being channeled anymore, as in so many of the folk versions. It is Sharon Jones’s take on the song’s story. She is the one traveling the land, relaying what she sees. She marches onward, noting (in a clever, soulful double entendre?) how “on the backside” of the sign that says private property there she found a land truly made for you and me. She identifies compassionately with the people caught under the steeple or at the welfare office, trying to survive. She sees them, stands with them awhile, but keeps on moving on her freedom highway, where no one can stop her.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings perform “This Land Is Your Land” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, 2012.

Whatever sense of owning the land by divine right that can be found in Anthem Lights’ version of the song dissolves here; another, different, potent, subaltern nation pulses into view. It shimmies loose. It doesn’t stand still. As the drum shuffle intensifies toward the end of the song, Jones turns the “This Land” into a “Dancing in the Streets” geographic call out. In various versions, she heralds Riverside, California, “Philadelphia, PA,” North Carolina, South Carolina, Houston, Los Angeles, and her own birthplace of Brooklyn, among other cities. These places form a kind of secret, counter-country lurking within the existing one. It is the world of African American communities that this African American performer names. They are places traumatized by racism, of course, but also far from defeated. There’s a party going right here. It’s an invitation across the nation. This land could be made for you and me, for the people. Maybe, surreptitiously, the process has already begun.

Here is an alternative anthem? Perhaps. Jones’s version of “This Land” with the Dap Kings pivots the song to the age of Obama. It does so more forcefully, more evocatively, than Seeger and Springsteen did at the 2009 Inauguration. It presages the era of Black Lives Matter. Jones seems less concerned with owning the land or taking it from someone else than in asserting freedom and community across it, on it, for all. Here is an articulation of a politics of recognition and maybe even redemption. She notes the necessary tensions in getting there, particularly when she stops the song near its climax to improvise on the words “you and me,” repeating the terms over and over until you aren’t sure if this “you and me” can each have their way without the other getting out of the way. Then the backbeat rears up again and in the slapping groove and in the horn section’s syncopated call and response Jones “walks” on, seeking that different place where this land might truly belong to you and me, sensing perhaps that it might always remain subaltern, never quite seizing state power, never quite becoming the law of the land. Yet the song keeps going.

Coda: Modulations

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings land upon, as it were, an alternative national anthem with their version of “This Land Is Your Land.” Through musical performance, they renew “This Land”’s fierce examination of the history of the United States. They repurpose Guthrie’s lyrics to speak from a different perspective, with a different sense of history, place, grievance, restlessness, and possibility. They get us up out of our seats. They raise questions that hang in the air. They generate momentum. Like J Lo, they combine critique and affirmation, skepticism and hope. They point to the continued shortcomings of the United States to live up to its ideals of equality, justice, and freedom; but in doing so, they also double down on those ideals.

Where does this leave us when we ask what an alternative national anthem can be or do? Shifting to another recent incident in the ongoing contestation of the American national anthem offers, for now, a final angle on the matter.

When Sailor Sabol sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2021 Conservative Political Action (CPAC) Conference, she seemed to circle through keys and tonalities randomly, earning a thorough roasting on social media for her strange rendition of the song. One pianist, however, Kevon Carter, posted a YouTube video in which he accompanied her on keyboards, following her every modulation, no matter how odd, with beautiful gospel and church-inflected accompaniment. He chased her seemingly random key changes with dexterity, finding chordal flourishes and filigrees to make it all fit musically.

Kevon Carter’s YouTube keyboard accompaniment to Sailor Sabol’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” performed originally at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 26, 2021.

Sabol is white; Carter is Black. As he cheered her on with “c’mon” and “sing your song,” he was at once poking fun at her and, just as crucially, keeping up with every weird musical twist and turn she made. Wherever the singer went in her bizarro version of the national anthem at the world’s leading conservative political conference, he could go with her too, drawing upon his knowledge of African American church keyboard approaches to vocal accompaniment. Sure, his performance grants, this land, this country, this nation-state—the United States of America—was made for you; but, his playing resolutely points out, it is also made of, by, and for me. One might say that Carter channeled the ethos of what is sometimes known as the African American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” into Sabol’s CPAC version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Carter’s video also looped back to Woody Guthrie, via Pete Seeger. It brought to mind Seeger’s adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s famous slogan, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” which Guthrie scrawled on his acoustic guitar. Seeger inscribed a new version on his banjo. It read: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” This is just what Carter seemed to be doing. In his YouTube video, on his electronic keyboard, he cushioned Sabol in sound. He brought musical sense to her jarring rendition. At the same time, he found musical ways to critique her, to reject what she and CPAC symbolize, to box them in, and to transcend them. Backing up Sabol on the keys, Carter found new voicings for the national anthem.

His accompaniment also does something else. It accentuates reception and response, not only musically but also culturally and politically. There is something profoundly democratic about his performance. It suggests that one can deliver substantive support, but while doing so one can also recognize problems, query possibilities, bring divergent mistakes back on track, and even gesture to alternatives that the original singer and her ilk could not even imagine. In Carter’s virtuosic handling of the accompaniment to Sabol’s disorienting take on the American national anthem, he neither erases her nor the intolerant politics CPAC embodies; rather, he compiles, preserves, records, notes, bends things back to sense, and propels them forward. Soaring through the harsh sounds of all that is wrong with the contemporary United States, folding in the strange modulations of history, Carter wrests the national anthem away from her even as he accompanies her.

The fog lifts for a moment, just as it does at the end of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” The many contradictions of the United States, contradictions that Guthrie himself struggled to confront, seem to dissolve, bursting in air. There is a clearing. A land comes into sight—more accurately into sound. Carter does not ignore or submerge pain, but rather brings it into the mix. He sonically acknowledges the blood spilled upon the land, the suffering it has witnessed, the violence committed upon its soil, the injustices and unfairness of the nation-state that occupies it. He listens, contextualizes, responds, salutes, gapes in disbelief, acknowledges, disagrees, refutes, lambasts, teases, objects, humanizes. He surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. He fights fascism. He moves the story from the back of the bus to the front of our attention. Most of all, Carter’s video points to a strikingly different future for the lands upon which the USA continues to define its borders. His performance of the national anthem proposes that this land, one day, might truly be made for you and me, for all, in a transformed state of sovereignty.


[1] Quoted in Robert Santelli, This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2012), 9.

[2] Santelli, This Land, 20.

[3] Sheryl Kaskowitz, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 57. Original quote appears in Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980; reprint, New York: Delta, 1999), 133.

[4] Quoted in Santelli, This Land, 152.

[5] See Jodi Beznoska, “This Land Is Our Land: Young Immigrant Musicians Reinvent A Classic,” Deceptive Cadence: From NPR Classical, July 3, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/07/03/535017004/this-land-is-our-land-young-immigrant-musicians-reinvent-a-classic?t=1565900388074.

[6] Will Kaufman, “Woody Guthrie, ‘Old Man Trump’ and a real estate empire’s racist foundations,” The Conversation, January 21, 2016, https://theconversation.com/woody-guthrie-old-man-trump-and-a-real-estate-empires-racist-foundations-53026.

[7] Mali Obomsawin, “This Land Is Whose Land? Indian Country and the Shortcomings of Settler Protest,” Folklife, June 14, 2019, https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/this-land-is-whose-land-indian-country-settler-protest.

[8] Will Kaufman, “The misguided attacks on ‘This Land Is Your Land’,” The Conversation, August 20, 2019, https://theconversation.com/the-misguided-attacks-on-this-land-is-your-land-121169.

[9] Gustavus Stadler, “This Land Is … whose land?: The history of Woody Guthrie’s song,” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/1/26/this-land-is-whose-land-the-history-of-woody-guthries-song. See, also, Dorian Lynskey, “This Land is Your Land: America’s other national anthem,” BBC Culture, September 29, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200929-this-land-is-your-land-americas-other-national-anthem.

[10] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983; revised edition, New York: Verso, 2006), 145.

[11] Santelli, This Land, 180.

[12] Mark Allan Jackson, “Is This Song Your Song Anymore?: Revisioning Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land,’” American Music 20, 3 (2002), 270.

[13] Evan Hansen, “JibJab beats copyright rap,” C|Net, August 25, 2004, https://www.cnet.com/news/jibjab-beats-copyright-rap/.

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