November 7, 2014 / by admin / American History / No Comments

This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

This Land that I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

John Shaw

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 161039223X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


February, 1940: After a decade of worldwide depression, World War II had begun in Europe and Asia. With Germany on the march, and Japan at war with China, the global crisis was in a crescendo. America’s top songwriter, Irving Berlin, had captured the nation’s mood a little more than a year before with his patriotic hymn, “God Bless America.”

Woody Guthrie was having none of it. Near-starving and penniless, he was traveling from Texas to New York to make a new start. As he eked his way across the country by bus and by thumb, he couldn’t avoid Berlin’s song. Some people say that it was when he was freezing by the side of the road in a Pennsylvania snowstorm that he conceived of a rebuttal. It would encompass the dark realities of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and it would begin with the lines: “This land is your land, this land is my land….”

In This Land That I Love, John Shaw writes the dual biography of these beloved American songs. Examining the lives of their authors, he finds that Guthrie and Berlin had more in common than either could have guessed. Though Guthrie’s image was defined by train-hopping, Irving Berlin had also risen from homelessness, having worked his way up from the streets of New York.

At the same time, This Land That I Love sheds new light on our patriotic musical heritage, from “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Martin Luther King’s recitation from “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Delving into the deeper history of war songs, minstrelsy, ragtime, country music, folk music, and African American spirituals, Shaw unearths a rich vein of half-forgotten musical traditions. With the aid of archival research, he uncovers new details about the songs, including a never-before-printed verse for “This Land Is Your Land.” The result is a fascinating narrative that refracts and re-envisions America’s tumultuous history through the prism of two unforgettable anthems.

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Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads was the result. Coming out in 1910, it was the first such collection to include melodies and to gain national attention. Lomax boasted that his book’s 153 songs had been “never before in print,” which was probably true in most cases, but not all. One of the most durable and adaptable of the melodies, “Rosin the Bow,” had been published in 1838 in Philadelphia as “Old Rosin the Beau”; its publisher dedicated it, “with much respect,” to a local rowing club

love of his life—was rejected by her Jewish father for marrying a Christian, while Berlin’s beloved Ellin was cut off by her Christian father for marrying a Jew. Reconciliation in both families came about in the aftermath of heartbreak. The Berlins and the Guthries both lost a young child, whereupon the bereaved grandfathers reached out to their daughters, never having met their grandchildren. As musicians, Berlin and Guthrie responded to events in similar ways. On the streets as teenagers, they

by other Christians; American, and yet despised by America. That double consciousness comes through in the spirituals, with their twinned strains of piety and protest. Disobedient slaves were subject to a gruesome array of physical punishments, from the lash of the whip to mutilation, to the amputation of ears or other appendages, all the way to execution, with the slave’s owner acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Under such a regime, protest had to be surreptitious. Having adopted the

royalties completely to charity—to be able to give away, in the manner he wanted to, millions of dollars above and beyond the hundreds of thousands he had already donated. Berlin was a man of his convictions. BY THIS TIME BERLIN WAS DEEPLY immersed in a production without precedent, one that he served as writer, producer, and star. Three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department asked Berlin to consider reviving Yip Yip Yaphank, saying, “Your experience and your position today

18. 92       “I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark”: John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking Press, 1939; reprint, New York: Bantam Books, 1972), 463. 92       “That fuckin’ little bastard!”: Cray, 181. 92       “Ever’body might be just one big soul”: Guthrie, Classics Songbook, 29. 93       Hosting a May Day song contest: Reuss and Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 67. 93       Nine composers took up the challenge: Ashley Pettis, “Marching with a Song,” New Masses,

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