Gaga Meets Guthrie: Why 'This Land Is Your Land' Still Skirts the Line Between Patriotic Anthem & Political Broadside

Woody Guthrie
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Woody Guthrie

When Lady Gaga opened her Super Bowl halftime show Sunday singing a snippet of Woody Guthrie's iconic folk song "This Land is Your Land" was she appealing to America’s national spirit by performing one of its favorite patriotic anthems or making a sly political statement by excerpting a deeply subversive protest song?

How about both?

Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, literally wrote the book on the song when he published This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song five years ago. He knows Guthrie's 77-year-old tune can almost be all things to all people but believes Gaga had a specific intent behind the interpolation.

"It's become the go-to song for demonstrating one's patriotism for America as well as a musical platform to criticize what one thinks is wrong with America, or where America needs to be improved," says Santelli. "This is one of the unique songs that has a multitude of meanings -- and for good reason, because democracy has a multitude of meanings for different people.

"As performed by Lady Gaga, I believe this song was meant as a very respectful form of social protest. Without going head-on with any particular person, president or philosophy, she basically said in those few lines something that many people who've used that song have said: That this is a country of inclusion, not exclusion... I suspect this song is going to have a major renaissance, not just because of what Gaga did Sunday, but because there's a groundswell of need for music to play a part in what’s going on in America today."

Folk singer Tom Paxton, a Grammy lifetime achievement honoree, often sang the tune alongside Pete Seeger, the man who popularized it in the 1950s as a member of The Weavers. Paxton got as much of a charge out of the halftime show as he did out of the game's thrilling fourth quarter.

"I was thrilled to hear Lady Gaga do it," says Paxton. "I think juxtaposing it with 'God Bless America' was definitely a political statement and I love her for it. The song is not a super-patriotic song of the 'My country, right or wrong' variety. It's not a Lee Greenwood tub-thumper and not an aggressive song. It's a song for regular people, saying we all have a stake in this country. Hearing her sing it just put the stamp for me on the fact that the song is totally intertwined in the American fabric now. It's here to stay. If it can be sung together like this with 'God Bless America,' it's safe in port."

The Guthries are happy to be intertwined with Gaga at this moment in history, says Sarah Lee Guthrie, granddaughter of the folk legend and a singer/songwriter in her own right.

“For me, to hear ‘This Land is Your Land’ coming from Lady Gaga is so great,” says Guthrie. “I’ve been singing the song myself nonstop since the women’s march on Washington. I love the idea that ‘This Land is Your Land’ is still killing fascists (a reference to the “This Machine Kills Fascists” motto that Guthrie had embossed on the back of his guitar). I think that right now, it is the song that we need to be singing, because it really stands for not just immigration but for almost all of the things that we’re dealing with, even climate change, or the fact that [a Republican bill in Congress] would like to sell off 3.3 million acres of our national land.”

If the performance was seen by many left-leaning viewers as code that Gaga was with them on immigration or other hot-button issues, how is it so many that so many others said the singer turned in a completely apolitical set, whether they were praising her for that, from the right, or condemning her for it, from the left?

That may speak to the convoluted history of the tune, which has had different lyrics and been used for different purposes through its nearly eight-decade journey. Its only competition for malleability in the American songbook might be “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which began life as a nearly suicidal lament before going through several lyric changes and becoming an anthem of holiday optimism. Similarly, “This Land is Your Land” began as something almost snide before becoming something almost like an alternate national anthem.

When Guthrie began writing it in 1940, it was as an answer song to a smash hit that was apparently getting on his nerves: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The planned title was even the snippy-sounding “God Blessed America for Me” -- an origin that may not have been lost on someone with as developed a sense of pop history as Gaga, when she put the Berlin and Guthrie songs together Sunday night.

Somewhere in the writing process he changed the title sentiment to the one we now know, and it suddenly seemed much more affirming. But in various drafts that were written or recorded in the early ‘40s, the song had two politically troublesome verses that never made it into the versions heard by schoolchildren for decades to come. The fourth verse, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 but never released until 1997, had some lines that seem particularly prescient in the late 2010s:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me

The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property’

But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing

This land was made for you and me

The sixth verse, included on the original lyric sheet but apparently never recorded by Guthrie, also carried a sting:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple

By the relief office I saw my people

As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering

If God blessed America for me

Those highly charged verses were notably absent when the song took off, first in an initial appearance on a 1951 Folkways children’s album, followed by a publishing of lyrics and music in Sing Out! magazine in ’54, and then most indelibly via recordings and live performances by the folk phenomenon the Weavers. Guthrie had added another verse in 1945 that was further in keeping with the less strident, more poetic trajectory the tune was taking. As Santelli wrote in his book, “Guthrie saw the song’s lyrics as flexible and changeable, apparently deepening on why, where and for whom the song was being sung.” His health declined rapidly in the ‘50s, so there weren’t many chances for him to sing it publicly to let the public know what he might have finally considered a definitive version. Family members have publicly surmised that he okayed nixing the more contentious verses out of a fear of McCarthyism, though it also seems possible that he believed the song really did work better with a more inspirational cast than he’d originally conceived.

“Of course the lyrics that most people learn today as well as yesterday do not include the protest lyrics, which give it its radical edge,” says Santelli. “I think the last time someone of prominence sung it to such a large audience with all the lyrics was when Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang it for the Obama inauguration (in 2009). Pete told me he wouldn’t do it unless he was able to sing all the verses, and he convinced Bruce to feel the same way. And of course the Obama administration eagerly said, ‘That’s right; that’s what it should be.’”

It might seem that the song got de-politicized when the potentially controversial verses got dropped. But, just as the messages of diversity and inclusion in some of Sunday night’s commercials suddenly seemed like political statements in a way they wouldn’t have during Super Bowl XXX or XL, now even singing the most celebratory verses seems rife with subtext.

“Given the fact that it was a football game, and that there’s a time and a place for everything, I felt what she did was just right on,” says Santelli, who also referenced Gaga including her pro-LGBT anthem “Born This Way” at halftime, sans any right-baiting commentary. “It was not too little, not too much. You didn’t want potential controversy to take away from her overall performance, which was amazing, or the game. You have to pick and choose your battles, and I thought she did it very strategically and very well.”

Paxton thinks the song will remain part of the pantheon of American patriotic favorites, even though “it’s a rougher song than the others. It’s not only not Lee Greenwood, it’s not even ‘God Bless America,’ which is a wonderful song, but which is just unquestioningly patriotic. And I prefer my patriotism with my eyes open. I think that ‘This Land is Your Land’ does that better than any song does… Woody was a militant, no doubt about it. But it was a time in our history that perhaps like today called for militancy. But the song is wonderful even in that (softened) form that they sing it in the schools. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a beautiful, poetic song… I have a copy of the manuscript framed.”

Says Sarah Lee Guthrie: “I think the song has a gentle way of bringing everybody together, which is also what’s so great about it. No matter who you voted for, you can sing the song. But it has a message from the underdogs, which we need right now. And we have a president who is pretty much steering the boat without regard to what’s happening on the streets. I’m so sick of these wonderful pop singers who have the position that my dad’s (Arlo Guthrie’s) generation did in the ‘60s, but they’re not using it. Some are. But it’s just really a refreshing thing to hear that someone like Lady Gaga will take a stand in our political movement.

“Actually," adds Guthrie, "I just heard she did a Phil Ochs song at the Democratic convention” (at a private concert, last July, where she also performed a full-band Dixieland-style version of “This Land is Your Land”). “She sang ‘The War is Over,’ one of Ochs’ most emotionally powerful songs, and I couldn’t believe that she actually did it. When Lady Gaga is singing Phil Ochs, I’ve gained hope for the world.”

Super Bowl 51