From California, to the New York Island
A lot of folks forget it, but Woody Guthrie didn't: New York is an island.
This shouldn't come as a huge surprise to New Yorkers, but don't be embarrassed if you are unsure about New York geography—you are not alone. That little land mass that makes up the borough of Manhattan was known as "New York Island" back then, and believe it or not, it's fully separated from the mainland United States by the Hudson River.
The Harlem River separates Manhattan from the Bronx to the North, and to the East, the creatively named East River cuts Manhattan off from Brooklyn. Brooklyn shares a landmass with Queens and all those suburbs generally known as Long Island.
People may or may not have recognized its water-bounded nature a little more readily back then, but New York was hardly some sort of backwoods island in 1940: a subway map from 1939 looks nearly as complicated as the one New Yorkers use today.
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me
Ever heard a song called "God Bless America"? Woody Guthrie hated that song, and this was his response.
Irving Berlin's patriotic World War I tune made a comeback as the U.S. crept toward entering World War II in 1939 and 1940. The song was a thorn in Woody Guthrie's side; the popular version sung by Kate Smith so irritated him for what he saw as its thoughtless patriotism that he decided the only response was a populist comeback.
Whether you agree with the patriotic impulse or can rally behind Guthrie's vaguely communistic response, it seems evident that Woody was something of a better songwriter than Berlin. Berlin penned these simplistic lines:
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
Guthrie came back with a miniature geography lesson.
As I was walking a ribbon of highway
Ever notice how a lot of old songs sing about trains, and a lot of slightly-less-old songs sing about highways instead?
Even though it seems to us like a completely ingrained part of the American psyche, the image of "a ribbon of highway" was still just setting in as a cultural fixture in 1940.
Henry Ford started selling his Model T in 1908, but it wasn't until well into the century that cars became a commonplace commodity. The U.S. government passed a law to build and regulate a national highway system in 1925, and kept people employed during the Great Depression by putting them to work on the roads. Highway 1, Route 66, and Highway 61, great sources of folklore now, were new sources of pride back then.
But it wasn't until 1944 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed legislation to create the interstate highway system we have now. Because there was no money to fund it, it wasn't until 1956 that the government actually built all those crazy interstates we know now. The new interstate system with all the spiraling off-ramps and pricey toll-ways displaced the old ribbon-like two-lane highway. The fact that those ribbons are old news might be part of why they seem like such a romantic image now.
I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
Woody Guthrie's biographer Ed Cray wrote, "He knew drifters and movie stars, migrant workers and Skid Row barflies, Martha Graham dancers and dance hall floozies, abstract expressionists Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell, as well as their wives, girl-friends, and lovers." (Source)
Although Guthrie began suffering from a rare degenerative disease known as Huntington's chorea when he was still just about 40, his early years were packed with coast-to-coast wanderings that landed him everywhere from New York to Oregon. It could be argued that Guthrie's approach to roaming and then writing about it is part of what gave that ramblin'-man image such a central place in American folklore.
During the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, everybody from Jack Kerouac to Bob Dylan did their best to recreate and idealize that persona of a freewheeling artist on the loose. The rambling, road-tripping American man became a permanent fixture on the literary and film landscape.
In the 21st century, it seems the romance of the roaming archetype is up for debate. The 2009 film Up in the Air did its best to make us feel depressed about the idea of rambling around the country. George Clooney's sad, isolated character—whose job is to fly around the country firing people who have been laid off due to the recession—implicitly questions whether the life of the traveler is a life of freedom, or a life of loneliness. The film opens with none other than a cover of "This Land Is Your Land."
As I went walkin', I saw a sign there
[Was a great big wall there, it tried to stop me]
And that sign said 'No Trespassin'
[There was a sign there, said 'private property']
But on the other side, it didn't say nothin'
A lot of people don't even know that this verse is a part of the song.
Indeed, when Guthrie's work started to make its way into mainstream culture while he was hospitalized with Huntington's, he felt that the real song was being ignored. They were having kids sing "This Land Is Your Land" in schools, but leaving out political verses.
"I remember him coming home from the hospital and taking me out to the backyard, just him and me, and teaching me the last three verses to 'This Land is Your Land' because he thinks that if I don't learn them, no one will remember," said his son Arlo Guthrie. (Source, xiv)
Guthrie's friend Pete Seeger—who was himself hounded in the 1950s for his quasi-Communist politics—knew the last verses well, and wasn't going to let his old friend's radical politics be forgotten. When he took the stage in 2009 to sing "This Land Is Your Land" with Bruce Springsteen for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration, he was sure to sing the song all the way through. Peter, Paul and Mary, on the other hand, recorded a version that leaves the last two verses out.
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office, I see my people
Woody Guthrie was influenced by The Little Red Songbook.
The Little Red Songbook is a book of workers' songs with a communist and socialist slant that was put together by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). They were one of the most influential trade unions in the early 20th century, noted for their radical politics and for their use of songs in lots of strikes and demonstrations.
They believed in class war, and they also spoke out against charitable Christian organizations that they believed tried to force their religion on people without offering real relief. One of the most famous Wobbly songs, "The Preacher and the Slave," jabs at the church much more directly than Woody's subtle lines.
The relief office was the Great Depression version of today's welfare office. It should bring to mind those images of people lined up in 1930s outfits. By showing all the people "in the shadow of the steeple" still unable to get work, Guthrie creates an image that implicitly criticizes the church. Who would have guessed that The Little Red Songbook would live on in what is now considered the most all-American of songs?