13 Delicious Facts About Hannibal

Brooke Palmer, NBCUniversal Media
Brooke Palmer, NBCUniversal Media

In 2013, producer Martha De Laurentiis, writer Bryan Fuller, and a talented cast and crew set about crafting a new version of the Hannibal Lecter story. It was a daring proposition after the character and his world had been so clearly defined by Sir Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of the character and Hannibal’s presence in four novels and five feature films, but Fuller had an idea no one else had approached yet. He wanted to tell the story of the cannibal psychiatrist and the empathetic profiler who ultimately caught him as the story of two lives linked by mutual insanity. Audiences could not have seen it coming, but what they got was one of the most stylish, visually arresting, and psychologically complex horror shows to ever hit television.

Hannibal only lasted three seasons, but in its short time on the air it amassed loads of critical acclaim and a ravenous fan base known as “Fannibals,” many of whom are still holding out hope for the show’s return. With the show’s influence and impact still fresh in our imaginations more than five years after it made its debut, here are 13 facts about the making of Hannibal.

1. BRYAN FULLER GOT THE JOB BECAUSE OF A FATEFUL PLANE RIDE.

Bryan Fuller is a lifelong fan of horror, and a longtime fan of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, but he did not set out to snag the Hannibal job. In fact, he wasn’t even necessarily aware of the job until it found him, on a flight to New York City where he happened to be seated near an old friend: Katie O’Connell, who was the then-new CEO of the Gaumont Film Company’s U.S. television division. O’Connell told Fuller she was developing a Hannibal series, and asked him if he thought there was a show there—not to offer him the job, but just to get his feedback. In response, Fuller asked if Gaumont had the rights to Will Graham, the protagonist of Harris’s novel Red Dragon, because he was fascinated by one line in that novel that signified a much deeper relationship between Graham and Lecter that audiences and readers had never quite seen.

“Because I had read the books, I knew how much more psychologically complex Will Graham is in the literature than he is in the film. I thought, Wow, there’s a great opportunity to deliver on that line from Red Dragon that Hannibal Lecter says, which is, ‘You caught me because you’re as insane as I am.’ There’s a whole world in that explores their friendship,” Fuller said. “If we are dealing with the Hannibal Lecter who’s a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal, then he’s out in the open amongst us, a wolf in psychiatrist’s clothing, and wouldn’t that be such a terrifying thing for someone like Will Graham, who is uniquely vulnerable to his own psychology, to have somebody there with access to the buttons of his mind.”

Fuller’s thoughts on Hannibal and Will Graham set in motion an idea for a kind of Red Dragon prequel that would also serve as a mash-up of all of Harris’s writings on the character. That in turn led to a meeting with Martha De Laurentiis of the Dino De Laurentiis Company, which in turn led to a meeting at NBC which got the show greenlit.

2. THE SERIES BEGAN LIFE AS A CLARICE STARLING STORY WITH MGM.

Hugh Dancy and Julian Richings in 'Hannibal'
Brooke Palme, NBCUniversal Media

Before Bryan Fuller entered the picture, and even before Gaumont Television began working on developing the series, Martha De Laurentiis was considering some kind of new Hannibal Lecter project, but wasn’t interested in making yet another film based on the works of Thomas Harris. While Fuller’s concept ultimately latched onto the dynamic between Lecter and Graham, De Laurentiis said that before that happened there was the idea of revisiting The Silence of the Lambs pairing of Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling.

“We actually were toying with the idea—with MGM, who has the Clarice character, from the library of Orion Pictures that did Silence of the Lambs—and we were talking about doing something Clarice and Hannibal in the time period after Silence of the Lambs, but we really didn’t take it very far,” De Laurentiis said. “In fact, I felt that perhaps Hannibal would be a very, very minor character and then perhaps just disappear, and I didn’t feel that was right for the character of Hannibal Lecter.”

So, through working with Katie O’Connell at Gaumont, De Laurentiis was connected with Fuller, and the collaboration that would bring us Hannibal began.

3. FULLER ORIGINALLY DEVELOPED A SEVEN-SEASON PLAN.

Though Red Dragon was a major inspiration on the direction of the show because of its depiction of the Lecter/Graham dynamic, Fuller and company set Hannibal in the years leading up to that story in order to show audiences what Lecter was like as “a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal,” as Fuller put it. That meant reading between the lines of Harris’s novel to develop the relationship that would ultimately lead the two characters down the path of Red Dragon, and lead Hannibal as a character into his life as documented by Harris, when he was a captured serial killer and then an escaped fugitive. In the end, the mash-up quality of the series allowed Fuller to play with many of those elements of Lecter’s life outside of Harris’s chronology, but as the series was first taking shape, Fuller imagined a seven-season plan that would ultimately adapted Harris’s first three Lecter novels and then go beyond them.

“Well, when you get into season four, you get into the literature. And so season four would be Red Dragon, season five would be The Silence of the Lambs era, season six would be the Hannibal era, and then season seven would be a resolve to the ending of that book," Fuller said. "Hannibal ends on a cliffhanger. Hannibal Lecter has bonded with Clarice Starling and brainwashed her and they are now quasi-lovers and off as fugitives, and so that’s a cliffhanger. It might be interesting to resolve that in some way and to bring Will Graham back into the picture. So once we get two more seasons, say, of the television show, those are the aren’t-novelized stories, and then we would get into expansions of the novels after that and kind of using the novels as a backbone for season arcs that would then be kind of enhanced.”

Of course, plans change, and the adaptation of Red Dragon ultimately came in the second half of the show’s third season, but it’s clear Fuller had big ambitions to chart the full course of Hannibal’s criminal career.

4. A REAL CHEF DESIGNED ALL THOSE CANNIBAL RECIPES.

Mads Mikkelsen in 'Hannibal'
NBCUniversal Media

Hannibal Lecter isn’t just a cannibal—he is a cannibal gourmand and gourmet, a lover of the finer things who doesn’t just want to eat human flesh, but prepare it in exquisite and refined ways. Fuller knew this, and he also immediately knew he needed someone with tremendous food expertise to help him make the series. So he turned to a chef of whom he was already a fan: José Andrés, owner of the restaurant The Bazaar in Beverly Hills.

"I have a limited knowledge of the culinary. And Hannibal Lecter has to be smarter than I am in the kitchen," Fuller said. "José gives insight into his expertise; he's omnipresent in every food scene."

When work on the series began, Fuller and Andrés began a series of conversations in which the chef explained that every part of the human body is in some way edible, right down to the bones, which can be ground up and used as thickener. With this in mind, Fuller sought to not just write scenes in which Hannibal is cooking human body parts, but to craft elaborate metaphors in each dinner scene (for example, the scene in which he serves “lamb tongue” to Dr. Frederick Chilton), on which he heavily consulted Andrés during the writing process. Andrés would develop a recipe, which food stylist Janice Poon would then prepare and arrange on set, complete with the elaborate tablescapes which came to dominate so much of the look of the show. The “food porn” Fuller insisted on became so popular with fans that Poon started a blog about the process, and even eventually produced a cookbook.

5. SEVERAL ROLES WERE RACE- AND GENDER-SWAPPED.

In writing Hannibal, Fuller considered Harris’s writing—particularly Red Dragon—to be a kind of guiding Bible, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t take liberties. He aged up the title character, which among other things removes Lecter’s traumatic childhood experiences during World War II from consideration, but perhaps the most notable changes came in casting. Several key roles in the series were ultimately given to actors of different races and even genders than they were previously depicted, in an effort to increase the diversity of the cast. So, Hannibal gave us black actors in the roles of previously white characters Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley), and the previously male characters Alan Bloom and Freddy Lounds became Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki).

“Because it’s a more accurate representation of the world, and if we just did Red Dragon again, it’d be a sausage party with a bunch of white guys,” Fuller told Bloody Disgusting. “I mean, when I first started writing, my protagonists were always young women, and there’s something about that point of view ... you can do some things with a female character that you can’t do with a male character. Like, I always think that, to make a character female gives you so many more opportunities of expression.”

6. DAVID TENNANT ALMOST PLAYED HANNIBAL.

David Tennant in 'Jessica Jones'
Myles Aronowitz, Netflix

Hugh Dancy was the first star cast in the series, joining Hannibal as Will Graham in the spring of 2012, but casting the title role took a little bit longer. After all, how do you recast a part that Anthony Hopkins basically owned thanks to three films and one Oscar? Ultimately, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen won the role, but he wasn’t the only star considered. At one point, Fuller was meeting with Doctor Who and Jessica Jones star David Tennant about the role.

“I met [Hannibal executive producer] Bryan Fuller a couple of times, and we talked about it,” Tennant told Entertainment Weekly. “But I think they quite wisely chose Mads Mikkelsen, I think he was a perfect choice for it, and I think he did things with that character that I wouldn’t have managed, so I think the right man got the job.”

7. CENSORS WERE ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS.

For a show like Hannibal, elaborate crime scenes full of mutilated bodies were always going to be part of the process, which adds even more credence to the idea that such a series might be better suited to cable than a broadcast network. At NBC, though, Fuller took a very hands-on approach to crafting the various gruesome murders with the help of the network's standards and practices department. Rather than script or shoot something and then get into a fight with network censors about what he couldn’t show, Fuller would reach out directly with his ideas first, and then work with them to depict the best possible NBC-friendly version of the scene. As a result, he learned a few tricks to get around broadcast TV’s violence limitations.

“The redder the blood and the brighter the blood the less you can show,” he said. “So if you darken the blood and throw it into shadow, then you can be much more graphic than your normally would be able to.”

As it happens, dark shadowy blood matches Hannibal’s overall aesthetic perfectly, so that particular note worked out for everyone.

8. ONE EPISODE NEVER AIRED ON NBC.

It was never any secret that Hannibal would be the kind of show that dealt with graphic and heinous crimes. Its two main characters are a serial killer and a man who hunts serial killers, after all. Still, even Fuller has his limits, and after a particularly violent few months in America in late 2012 and early 2013, he asked NBC to pull the fourth episode of the show’s first season. “Oeuf,” the episode in question, involved a woman (Molly Shannon) brainwashing children into killing their own families. Fuller felt that “given the cultural climate right now in the U.S., I think we shouldn’t air the episode in its entirety,” and cited in particular the Sandy Hook school shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing as examples. “Oeuf” was still teased via a series of clips released to NBC’s website, and the episode is now available on Blu-ray and through streaming services.

9. THERE WAS ONE ELABORATE MURDER THE SHOW WASN’T ALLOWED TO FILM.

Despite working closely with the network’s standards and practices to show as much as possible within the limits of broadcast TV, Hannibal was still a series airing on one of the big four broadcast networks, and not cable. That meant limitations were always inevitable, and at one point Fuller and the writers’ imaginations reached further than NBC was willing to allow.

So, what’s the one big murder scene NBC said no to? According to Fuller, it would have come in the Season 1 episode “Roti,” in which Graham is pursuing escaped killer Dr. Abel Gideon (guest star Eddie Izzard). The scene would have involved Lounds being lured into a room where one of Gideon’s victims was waiting, still alive, with a slit in his stomach. Lounds would have then flipped a switch that triggered a ceiling fan, and it would have been revealed that the fan was actually attached to the man’s intestines through the cut in his stomach. As the fan began to spin, it would disembowel him.

“That was the only one where NBC was like, ‘I just don’t know how you’re going to do it,'” Fuller said. “We would have pushed back if we also hadn’t been told that financially we didn’t know how we could afford to produce such a gag, because you have intestines swinging around a ceiling fan,” he adds.

10. THE SHOW’S BIGGEST CRIME SCENE USED REAL (LIVING) HUMAN BODIES.

Hugh Dancy in 'Hannibal'
NBCUniversal Media

The first case of Hannibal’s second season involved “The Muralist,” a serial killer who abducted and killed various people of different ethnic backgrounds, preserved their bodies with silicone and resin, and then sewed them together in a massive and intricate pattern in the bottom of a silo to form the shape of a human eye (victims with paler skin made up the white, while victims with darker skin were the pupil). It’s an intense and captivating visual even by Hannibal’s standards, and while the production used a computer program called Form Z to design the layout of the bodies beforehand, when it came time to actually film the scene there was no substitute for the real thing. Several dozen background artists were employed and asked to lie in an elaborate pattern on the floor of the set for two days of shooting, usually nearly nude.

“Forty-plus human bodies. They warmed the bottom of the floor for the backgrounds artists so they wouldn’t succumb to the cold,” Fishburne recalled. “And you walk into that room and you’re hit immediately with all the scent of human flesh and the pheromones that are coming off everybody and all you want to do is lay down and go to sleep with them.”

11. IT INCLUDES A WONDERFALLS CROSSOVER.

It’s a bit of a tradition among Bryan Fuller TV series that some connective tissue is established between whatever the current series is and the shows that came before it, establishing what fans call the “Fullerverse.” This carried over into Hannibal, which shares a very brief connection with Fuller’s single season Fox series Wonderfalls. In Hannibal’s second episode, “Amuse-Bouche,” a woman named Gretchen Speck (Chelan Simmons) goes to the pharmacy to pick up her insulin, at which time it’s revealed that she was previously Gretchen Speck-Horowitz, but she has since divorced. Speck is one of the potential victims of that episode’s serial killer, a pharmacist who gives diabetic patients the wrong medication to place them into a coma, then half-buries them and uses their bodies as mushroom farms in the forest. Speck was meant to be his next victim, but she’s saved before he can carry out his plan. Gretchen Speck-Horowitz was one of Wonderfalls’s recurring characters, and because she managed to escape death in Hannibal, she’s still around for another Bryan Fuller series.

12. DAVID BOWIE WAS ALMOST A GUEST STAR.

In addition to a stellar main cast, Hannibal was also always packed with interesting guest stars, from Eddie Izzard to Gillian Anderson to Lance Henriksen. One particular guest star, though, was always just out of reach for the series. For the second season, Fuller offered the role of Hannibal’s uncle Robert Lecter to legendary musician and actor David Bowie, but Bowie was unavailable and the role was left uncast—though not without the hope that Bowie could eventually make time for the series.

“We were told by his people, when we got the pick-up for the third season, to make sure to ask again about his availability,” Fuller said. “So, once we have our dates, we are going to ask again.  I think the man walks on water, so I would love to be in his orbit, in some way.”

Bowie, of course, never made it to Hannibal, and we now know he spent the final 18 months of his life battling liver cancer and working on his final musical projects before he passed away on January 10, 2016.

13. A REVIVAL FOCUSING ON THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS IS STILL POSSIBLE.

Hannibal was canceled in June of 2015, just weeks into third season, after three years of critical acclaim but consistently low ratings. “Fannibals” immediately began requesting that the series continue elsewhere, and Fuller teased discussions with various streaming services to do just that. At one point, it seemed a deal to bring the series to Amazon for a fourth season was close, but the timeline ended up not working out due in part to Fuller’s commitment to the Starz series American Gods. Three years later, we still haven’t seen any more Hannibal.

That doesn’t mean it’ll never happen, though. Fuller has consistently broached the possibility of a fourth season or a even a miniseries to reunite the show’s cast, and both Mikkelsen and Dancy have expressed interest in returning. If the show did come back, Fuller would aim to focus on some form of the Silence of the Lambs storyline, having adapted Red Dragon in season three, while also resolving the very literal cliffhanger at the end of the series’s NBC run.

So, when could it happen? Last year, Fuller said that the rights have finally reverted back to De Laurentiis, who has begun “conversations” about the future of the franchise. We still have no idea what that future holds, but even three years later, Fannibals aren’t letting their favorite cannibal go.

Additional Sources:
“Hannibal Reborn” featurette, 2013
“A Taste for Killing” featurette, 2013
The Art and Making of Hannibal the Television Series by Jesse McLean, 2015

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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