Freedom and the beauty of America have inspired musicians since the early pioneer days. Some songs saw stars and stripes, while others flopped. One American singer and songwriter created a patriotic song that would remain popular for decades. Still, the inspiration behind the song wouldn’t come from the land of the free and the home of the brave, as some anti-anthem calls it.
Woody Guthrie, born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, was born in Oklahoma in 1912 and was named after the president, Woodrow Wilson. Unfortunately, his childhood was filled with hardships that included a fallen businessman for a father who had to leave the family to repay debts, a mother suffering from Huntington’s disease and was moved to a hospital for the insane, and Guthrie living through three tragic fires by the time he was 14-years-old.
Despite a tumultuous childhood, Guthrie found joy in music. He gravitated towards music, thanks to his parents teaching him what they knew while they were still around. During his youth, he also picked up folk and blues songs from family and friends. He decided to pursue a music career and moved to California for a better life when the Dust Bowl hit (and left his wife and three children).
During his California years, he made a living playing hillbilly music at a local radio station and writing a column for a communist paper. Guthrie was indeed a “communist.” However, he never publicly admitted to his political standing.
The Controversial Patriotic Song
After California, Guthrie headed to New York, where he wrote and recorded one of his most well-known albums: The Dust Bowl Ballads. This album included “This Land is Your Land,” which was a top hit (possibly because the tune was “borrowed” from other popular songs during that time). The inspiration for the song came from opposition to another well-known American song, “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin. He found the lyrics of this song to be unrealistic and complacent and wanted to fight back in a way he knew how to. School children and patriotic folk still sing Guthrie’s song today, yet the history behind the song may be surprising to some.
“If the fight gets hot, the song gets hotter. If the going gets tough, the songs get tougher.”
Guthrie went on to create hundreds of songs. Most of his hits were country, folk, or children’s songs. Many artists later credited Guthrie for inspiration, including Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie died in 1967 from Huntington’s disease, but his music remains today.
If you want to hear some of Woody’s top hits, check out our Woody Guthrie playlist on Spotify.