"There's several ways of saying what's on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain't any too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even to vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around. One of the mainest ways is by singing. Drop the word 'folk' and just call it real old honest to god American singing. No matter who makes it up, no matter who sings it and who don't, if it talks the lingo of the people, it's a cinch to catch on, and will be sung here and yonder for a long time after you've cashed in your chips. If the fight gets hot, the songs get hotter. If the going gets tough, the songs get tougher." –Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie is often presented as a folkster so folksy that the songs just spilled out of him without thought, but his personal writings reveal a man who put a lot of thought into the art of songwriting. Songwriting was a political and spiritual process for Guthrie, and "This Land Is Your Land" is one of the fruits of that process. He was an avid reader with a broad intellectual life of his own, spending hours in the library even years after he dropped out of high school. He even converted to Eastern philosophy and started doing yoga for a while in the 1930s. He was a clever, playful thinker from a young age, but he propped that up with years of reading, writing, and scripting radio and TV shows he was hired for.
When you look closely at the lyrics, "This Land Is Your Land" contains Guthrie's classic cleverness: he takes a patriotic anthem and turns it into an anti-capitalist one, but he maintains vivid imagery and a personal slant in each verse. The line The sun comes shining as I was strolling / The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling has a personal story to it, and it also contrasts the perceived serenity and beauty of the American landscape with a contemporary disaster, the huge dust storms that had devastated his own homelands in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Nearly every line in the song contains that sort of subtlety, and the feel is very much of a vivid, interestingly told story.
Still, the philosophy Woody Guthrie maintained about songwriting was more important to him than any formal education or specific writing style. He believed in something that has come to be known as the folk song, songs that tell stories that seem to belong to a collective, rather than an individual: "I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, 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," he explained. "And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you."