One of the most underrated political songs in American music history is undoubtedly Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Recorded in 1944 but not released by Folkways Records until 1951, it was written in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Though both are considered patriotic standards and taught to kids in elementary school, “This Land is Your Land” is not the happy-go-lucky song we think it is.
The most noticeably charged verse goes as follows:
“In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?”
At the time, there were still lingering effects from the Great Depression. In 1940, unemployment was still near 15 percent (even with New Deal measures), and the United States didn’t enter World War II until late 1941, so the economic boost the war provided most likely had not kicked in at the time of the song’s composition.
“In the shadow of the steeple”
Steeples generally are associated with churches, so it’s very interesting for Guthrie to bring that up. I don’t think Guthrie was praising the church. Alongside the Great Depression, some historians claim there was a separate, but nevertheless intertwined, religious depression. Church attendance and monetary contribution were down. This makes sense; people likely didn’t have extra money to give in the Great Depression era. Additionally, it is reasonable to make the assumption that given the dire state of the nation, many people would have had some loss of faith.
“By the relief office I seen my people”
Guthrie was from small-town Oklahoma, and though his family was financially stable, the “topsy turvy oil economy” left them less well-off. He understood the type of people most deeply affected by the Depression (especially in Dust Bowl country).
It is the last line that delivers the deepest thought: “As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?”
That’s a really good question, Woody, and one that we should be asking today. Our culture is of excess, and we are a nation of consumerists. Is it our nation’s duty to feed the hungry? If we believe that “this land was made for you and me,” does that give us a moral obligation to take care of the less fortunate?
The song is thought-provoking, as Guthrie’s side leans towards socialism, and taking the opposite approach is almost turning a blind eye. “This Land is Your Land” is a hidden reminder of what some believe should be our country’s moral obligation.