“Woody’s original songs, the songs that he wrote back in the 1930s … with these images of people losing their houses to the banks, of gamblers on the stock markets making millions, when ordinary working people can’t afford to make ends meet, and of people dying for want of proper free healthcare, you know, this song could have been written anytime in the last five years, really, in the United States of America,” says Bragg, who has long been inspired by Guthrie.
Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” was written in 1940 in response to Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” “Woody saw ['God Bless America'] as a strident, jingoistic, complacent, tub-thumping anthem to American greatness,” Kaufman says. “And now, he had just come from the Dust Bowl. He’d just come from the barbed-wire gates of California’s Eden there. He’d seen the Hoovervilles. He’d seen the bread lines. He’d seen labor activists getting their heads busted. And so, he’s thinking, what — God bless — what America, you know, is Kate Smith singing of?” In 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land Is Your Land” for the inauguration of President Obama. [includes rush transcript]
Will Kaufman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, England. He is author of Woody Guthrie, American Radical.
Pete Seeger, legendary folk singer and activist.
Billy Bragg, British musician and activist. With Wilco, he has released two albums of Woody Guthrie music.