Alan Lomax once described Woody Guthrie as "an unwitting classicist, someone who understood the power and integrity of the traditional forms and sang the old songs in an old-fashioned way, his voice droning and nasal and high-pitched" (Klein 149).
Indeed, sometimes that droning, nasal, high-pitched traditionalism can make Guthrie's original recordings sound a little underwhelming. But the key to the music is that it is simple and accessible. Most people who have heard "This Land Is Your Land" probably heard a cover of some kind, because the song has been covered over and over and over. Like any good folk song, it is a song that people like to sing, not just listen to. It also tends to sound a little bit familiar even when you hear it for the first time.
"This Land Is Your Land" might have sounded familiar to people the first time around for an even more obvious reason: they had heard the tune before. It turns out the song's tune was lifted almost precisely from a Carter Family song called "When The World's On Fire," which was, in turn, based on a Baptist hymn. That's a part of its traditional charm, and not something that Guthrie had any problem with, either. "Borrowing" was (and still is) a staple of the folk tradition.
"Here's this guy who always had all these words and now that he's making it really big, he can't say anything" (Klein xiv). Woody Guthrie died in 1967 after spending the last twelve years of his life in the hospital.
Luckily for his admirers, Woody Guthrie did a lot of writing during his life, leaving behind thousands of songs and a few memoirs, too. His description of the process of songwriting may give some insight into what "This Land Is Your Land" meant to him—and why he was able to remain such an important icon for future generations:
"There's a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again. Sometimes when I hear music I think back over my days - and a feeling that is fifty-fifty joy and pain swells like clouds taking all kinds of shapes in my mind. Music is in all the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music - the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves, the whistle of a train, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker - kids squawling along the streets - the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert. Life is this sound, and since creation has been a song. And there is no real trick of creating words to set to music, once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song."
"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."