11 Historical Events Featured on The Americans

FX Networks
FX Networks

Since 2013, The Americans has revisited the paranoia of the Cold War through the eyes of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings—two Soviet spies secretly living in 1980s America who just so happen to have an FBI agent for a neighbor. To separate itself from all the other espionage shows on TV, the series uses history as its guide: The real world of the 1980s is never far away from the on-screen drama, whether we see it through controversial presidential speeches, wars, or seminal moments in pop culture. Sometimes these moments are a direct influence on the plot; other times, they’re featured simply to tell audiences when the episode takes place. As the hit FX show readies to air its series finale, we're revisiting 11 historical events featured on The Americans.

1. RONALD REAGAN’S STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE // SEASON 1

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced to the world his plans for a missile defense system that would shield the United States against the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons. Eventually known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the program was a system of loosely connected ideas for defense, including a web of ground-based and satellite-based anti-ballistic missile systems. The ideas were so far out there that the speech and program itself famously took on the nickname “Star Wars.”

In the first season of The Americans, which predates the president’s real-life speech, Philip and Elizabeth find out that UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Secretary of State for Defence John Nott were to meet with United States Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in his home to discuss something top-secret. What they learned from their bug was the initial planning of the SDI program, calling for a missile shield that would cover America and, at Thatcher’s insistence, Europe as well. The plan was to render the Soviet nuclear arsenal obsolete, effectively rendering the Soviet threat useless.

The threat of “Star Wars” looms over the first season, but in the finale, a rogue Air Force Intelligence Colonel informs Philip that the anti-ballistic technology proposed by the United States is “50 years from being remotely operational.” In the real world, President Bill Clinton would pare down Reagan’s lofty vision of an orbital defense system, instead organizing the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which concentrated on ground-based defense.

2. THE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN // SEASON 1, EPISODE 4

Nothing heats up a Cold War quicker than an attempt on the president’s life, and when Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, there was a real fear that the Soviets had struck. The Americans tackled the issue in the season one episode “In Control,” throwing the characters into the middle of the frenzy.

It begins when FBI agent Frank Gaad orders his team to find out if gunman John Hinckley had any Soviet ties. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is told by Claudia, her handler, that they should prepare for guerrilla warfare in the States should chaos break out. She also tells Elizabeth of rumors that the American government is up for grabs and that the Red Army is moving into Poland, which was a detail based on an actual fear at the time.

The Jenningses later find out through Stan Beeman that Hinckley was just a lone nut—information that Philip passes along to his KGB higher-ups.

3. THE NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION // SEASON 2, EPISODE 9

“Martial Eagle” is one of the most interesting blends of history and fiction in The Americans. The plot involves Philip and Elizabeth infiltrating a camp where the United States is training Nicaraguan rebels on U.S. soil to fight against the Sandinista government.

This is all based on the real Nicaraguan Revolution, where the United States supported the Contra rebels against the new Soviet-supported government until Congress put a stop to it through the Boland Amendments. This led to the Reagan Administration’s covert funding of the group through the profits it got from back-channel arms sales to Iran, culminating in the Iran-Contra scandal.

What does this have to do with The Americans? In addition to Philip and Elizabeth looking to leak photographic evidence of the United States training rebels on domestic soil, the episode itself had a very interesting person receive part of the story credit: Oliver North, the same lieutenant colonel who helped formulate the Contra funding plan, which led to him being convicted of three charges relating to the scandal (the charges were dismissed in 1991).

4. THE DEATH OF LEONID BREZHNEV // SEASON 3, EPISODE 1

The Americans typically uses important historical moments from the ‘80s as more of a backdrop for the plot than an upfront storyline. This is best exemplified with the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on November 10, 1982.

As an audience, we learn of the death during the season three premiere as Paige is flipping channels and happens across a news bulletin read by a young Tom Brokaw. There’s no real fanfare or dramatic reveal—it’s just business as usual as Brezhnev is replaced by Yuri Andropov, former KGB head, whose presence is felt intermittently over the next few seasons.

For Philip and Elizabeth—and the rest of the characters on the show—the Cold War still rages, despite who is in charge.

5. THE SALANG PASS TUNNEL FIRE // SEASON 3, EPISODE 5

Built into the Hindu Kush mountain range in the 1960s, the 1.7-mile Salang Pass Tunnel connects Northern Afghanistan with the city of Kabul, and today it’s estimated that 80 percent of the country’s commerce makes the journey through it. While years of wear and tear have destroyed the roads and ventilation system inside the tunnel and made any journey through it dangerous, one event remains the most infamous: the Salang Pass Tunnel fire of 1982.

Soviet censorship at the time attempted to downplay the severity, so details about the incident are sketchy; some reports even dispute the cause: The Soviets claimed there was a crash that involved a military convoy, which led to carbon monoxide poisoning for some soldiers due to idling truck engines. Other outlets paint the picture of a massive fuel tanker explosion that caused the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians.

There’s nothing official, but the event was important enough to get referenced on The Americans, as Philip solemnly listens to a BBC radio broadcast covering the event in the appropriately titled episode “Salang Pass.” As with much of the series’s historical context, the tunnel fire is more background noise that serves to heighten the Jenningses' anxiety rather than an active plot point.

6. THE SOVIET–AFGHAN WAR // SEASON 3, EPISODE 12

The real-life Soviet-Afghan War is a recurring plot point throughout The Americans, and Philip and Elizabeth have undertaken various missions for the cause. The most high-profile comes in the episode “I Am Abassin Zadran,” in which the Jenningses disguise themselves as CIA operatives to manipulate a mujahideen commander into killing his partners in order to dissolve their plans to secure advanced U.S. weapons in their war against the Soviets.

In reality, the United States would arm the Afghan guerrillas against the Soviets by the late ‘80s. The war was a general fiasco, with the Soviet Union incurring massive military and financial losses that would eventually contribute to its fall in 1991. The initial Soviet invasion began in December 1979 and by February 1989, the final troops were driven out. The Soviet Union would dissolve within three years.

7. RONALD REAGAN'S "EVIL EMPIRE" SPEECH // SEASON 3, EPISODE 13

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made clear his opposition to the Nuclear Freeze Movement, which was launched in the early ‘80s by Randall Forsberg, an arms controller researcher. The movement sought to halt the production and proliferation of the nuclear arsenals of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and though it had political support in the States, the president was determined to make sure the U.S. never weakened in front of the Russian threat.

In a speech made to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, Reagan used some of the boldest and most pointed words of his young presidency, calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and asserting that “we will never stop searching for a genuine peace, but we can assure none of these things America stands for through the so-called nuclear freeze solutions proposed by some.”

For Reagan’s supporters, it was a sign that the Commander-in-Chief was ready and willing to expand the country’s nuclear scope to defend its freedom. For detractors, especially those in the Soviet Union, it just fanned the flames of a Cold War that was rapidly teetering on the brink.

In The Americans episode "March 8th, 1983," coverage of the speech is witnessed by Philip and Elizabeth, who realize that this type of language—and the subsequent heightened tensions—could make their jobs, and the world, far more dangerous. Season three of the show then drew to a close, with Reagan’s voice calling the Soviets “the focus of evil in the modern world” as Philip and Elizabeth listened on—and as their daughter confessed her parents’ true identity to Pastor Tim on the phone in the room next door.

8. DAVID COPPERFIELD MAKES THE STATUE OF LIBERTY DISAPPEAR // SEASON 4, EPISODE 8

Poor Martha. One of the series’s more tragic characters gets the heave-ho to the Soviet Union in this episode, all set to the thematic stylings of David Copperfield’s real-life TV special The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears (which the episode is named after).

In the special, which aired on CBS on April 8, 1983, Copperfield used the vanishing Lady Liberty as a metaphor, saying, “I could show with magic how we take our freedom for granted.” For a show centered on a war over ideologies and differing views on freedom, Copperfield’s stunt proved the perfect symbol.

9. THE PREMIERE OF THE DAY AFTER // SEASON 4, EPISODE 9

In November 1983, director Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV movie The Day After aired on ABC, with a plot revolving around the opening salvo of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It attracted a record number of viewers, most of whom were likely left speechless by the harrowing scenes of nuclear devastation it depicted. Even President Reagan had an emotional take on the movie, saying, “My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Much like the 100 million people that watched in real life, The Day After left nearly every character on The Americans stunned—the Jenningses, the Beemans, even the Soviets working in the States. (While watching, one of the characters mentions another real life incident: On September 26, 1983, Soviet satellites detected a missile launch from the U.S., which should have prompted an immediate counter-attack from the Soviets. But the officer on duty that night determined it was a false alarm—and he was right: The satellites were fooled by the glint of the sun off some clouds.) The violent imagery and emotional devastation of the movie was so profound that it led Philip to doubt whether or not he should tell his KGB higher-ups about a new weaponized virus he just found out about, fearing what something like it could soon lead to.

10. “WE BEGIN BOMBING IN FIVE MINUTES” // SEASON 5, EPISODE 13

During a routine sound check for a radio speech in August 1984, President Ronald Reagan decided to have a little fun with the technicians by offering up an off-color parody of the speech he was actually set to deliver, saying: “My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Though the joke was only meant to be heard by those in the room, word of it soon leaked, and with an election right around the corner, the gaffe was a disaster for Reagan. In addition to the obvious embarrassment for the country, there were reports of the Soviet Army going on heightened alert after the information got out. The U.S. State Department, however, argued that the Soviets were blowing a mere joke out of proportion for “propaganda purposes.”

News coverage of Reagan’s joke found its way into the season five finale of The Americans, and while it never turns into a big plot point, the pained look on Paige’s face as she watches the coverage perfectly illustrated the real-world anxiety of the country at the time.

11. THE WASHINGTON SUMMIT // SEASON 6

The final season of The Americans throws the main characters right into the midst of 1987’s Washington Summit, a real-world meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that was highlighted by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. The tension during the lead-up to the Summit is woven throughout the season, with Elizabeth working night and day to put plans into motion since Philip has stepped away from the spy game.

All is not well within the Soviet Union by late 1987, though, and Elizabeth is unwittingly used in a clandestine operation devised by internal opponents of Gorbachev who wish to overthrow him. While in Mexico City, she meets up with a General Kovtun who informs her of the Soviet’s “Dead Hand" program, which is a computerized missile system that will automatically unleash the super power’s nuclear arsenal in the event their military leaders are ever wiped out in a first strike by the United States. Not only did the Dead Hand system actually exist during the Cold War, it may still be around today in some form.

"Dead Hand sounds like something made up for a James Bond movie—but that’s probably true of the Cold War in general," series creator Joe Weisberg told Vanity Fair. "If you look at a lot of the crazy things that happened during the Cold War, the more made up they seem, the more true they are."

15 Clever Breaking Bad Easter Eggs Hiding in Better Call Saul

Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
James Minchin/AMC

As evidenced by Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and his cohorts have an eye for detail that’s nearly unrivaled. If anything, Better Call Saul—which is originally set several years before the events of Breaking Bad—only proves the point. The series, which is about to kick off its fifth season, focuses on Jimmy McGill (soon to become Saul Goodman) and is full of references to its progenitor, some of which are pure fun, and some of which add a deeper meaning to what we already know. Here are 15 clever Breaking Bad Easter eggs hiding in Better Call Saul.

**Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead for both series.**

1. Being Kevin Costner

In a throwaway moment in Breaking Bad, Saul mentions to Walt that he once convinced a woman he was Kevin Costner (“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work”), and in the finale of the first season of Better Call Saul, we see the exact moment he was referring to. In case we thought that Saul was just making the story up for the sake of a pep talk, here’s the proof otherwise.

2. Neighborhood mainstay

If the diner where Jimmy first meets with the Kettlemans looked familiar to you, it’s for good reason. Loyola’s Diner featured in Breaking Bad as a mainstay of Mike’s—he met with Jesse there, as well as Lydia. It’s also, incidentally, a very real restaurant in Albuquerque. And while we’re on the subject of Mike and food, he’s been shown to be fond of pimento cheese sandwiches in both series.

3. Address unknown

David Costabile as Gale Boetticher in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In Better Call Saul, it’s shown that Jimmy's office is at 160 Juan Tabo Boulevard (which is a real nail salon). Those of you with a head for directions might also recall that that’s the same street that the ill-fated chemist Gale Boetticher lives on, at 6353 Juan Tabo Boulevard. Breaking Bad fans were thrilled when the karaoke-loving chemist appeared in Season 4 of Better Call Saul (with hopefully more to come).

4. The Ignacio connection

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul
Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

When he’s kidnapped by Walt and Jesse after refusing to help a busted Badger, Saul spits out a variety of nonsense in an attempt to stay alive. He also drops a name: Ignacio. So who is he talking about? As we learn in Better Call Saul, this refers to Nacho, who’s become one of the secondary leads on the show. “Nacho” is a nickname, short for Ignacio, which makes sense as a connection given how closely he’s been working with Jimmy/Saul.

5. Cheap tricks

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Michele K. Short, AMC/Sony Pictures

There’s another callback to the first time that Walt, Jesse, and Saul meet. Despite still having his hands tied behind his back, when Saul agrees to help Walt and Jesse, he tells them to each put a dollar in his pocket in order to secure attorney-client privilege. It seems that Saul got that idea from Kim, who, when she decides to help Jimmy after discovering he’s falsified evidence, tells him to give her a dollar for exactly the same reason.

6. Old afflictions

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in 'Better Call Saul'
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In yet another reference to that fateful first meeting, we learn that Saul isn’t bluffing when he tells Walt and Jesse that he has bad knees. He says the same thing when cops apprehend him in the first season of Better Call Saul. As to why he’s got bad knees to begin with, it all comes from his time as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” when he used to stage falls in order to earn a little bit of money.

7. Car talk

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Saul Goodman drives a white 1997 Cadillac DeVille with the vanity plate “LWYRUP.” Jimmy McGill’s ride is much more modest: a yellow Suzuki Esteem with a red door. That said, in the pilot of Better Call Saul, we very briefly see a white Cadillac DeVille—Jimmy parks his car next to it, in a truly blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to what’s to come. (Gus, notably, is driving the same blue Volvo in both shows.)

8. Home sweet home

In Better Call Saul, one of the retirement homes that Jimmy visits in his quest to find new clients for his growing elder law business is Casa Tranquila. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's a key location in Breaking Bad as the home of Hector Salamanca, and the place where he kills his longtime nemesis Gus Fring. It’s a nice touch to revisit the location, especially given the fact that Better Call Saul gives us the story as to how Hector wound up in a wheelchair in the first place.

9. What's your poison?

There’s also a nice bit of brand continuity with the made-up tequila Zafiro Añejo. Gus poisons a bottle to get back at Don Eladio in Breaking Bad, and we see the same blue bottle pop up in Better Call Saul when Jimmy and Kim scam a cocky stock broker named Ken. Ken, for his part, seems to be reaping a constant stream of bad karma, as he’s also in Breaking Bad as a victim of Heisenberg’s wrath. He swipes Walt’s parking spot—and has his car set on fire for his trouble.

10. The little piggy

Though Mike is hard as nails, he’s got a soft spot the size of Texas for his granddaughter Kaylee. He gifts her a pink pig plush in Better Call Saul, which crops up again in Breaking Bad under slightly less cute circumstances. He uses the doll as a distraction when an assassination attempt is made on his life.

11. Word games

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

The first letters of the episode titles of the second season of Better Call Saul are an anagram for “FRING’S BACK.” It’s a granular sort of trick that the creators have pulled off before: four of the episodes of season two of Breaking Bad spell out “Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ.” In the season finale, a 737 plane does indeed go down over Albuquerque, or ABQ.

12. Sentimental value

Given that Saul’s Breaking Bad office has a lot of strange objects in it, it’d be easy to miss the octagonal desk. As it turns out, the offices of Saul Goodman aren’t the desk’s first home: it’s seen in the background of Kim’s office in Better Call Saul. It’s retroactive, sure, but it’s still nice to know that Saul has some mementos around.

13. Movie night

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Ursula Coyote, AMC/Sony Pictures Television

There’s also a little sentimental value in the name of Saul’s holding company, Ice Station Zebra Associates, which he uses to help Walt launder money in Breaking Bad. As we discover in Better Call Saul, Ice Station Zebra is Kim’s favorite movie, due to her father’s affection for it. Though Kim is physically absent from Breaking Bad, small details seem to tie back to her all the time.

14. Set dressing

Krazy-8, may he rest in peace, also shows up in Better Call Saul. The van that he drives has the logo for Tampico Furniture on it, and he’s wearing a uniform with the logo as well. Tampico is where Walt, as he recalls in Breaking Bad, bought Walter Jr.’s crib. Unfortunately, those fond memories aren’t quite enough to save Krazy-8’s skin.

15. Beware of bugs

Before Mike leaves Philly for Albuquerque, a bartender tells him to be mindful of tarantulas. The spider plays a key role in Breaking Bad later on, as a young boy’s pursuit of the bug puts him in Walt’s path—and Todd’s path, by proxy. Determined to make a good impression on Walt, and knowing that there can’t be any witnesses to what they’re doing, Todd shoots the boy in one of the most shocking and cold-blooded moments in the entire series.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2018.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

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 and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

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