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.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."

10 of the Best Indoor and Outdoor Heaters on Amazon

Mr. Heater/Amazon
Mr. Heater/Amazon

With the colder months just around the corner, you might want to start thinking about investing in an indoor or outdoor heater. Indoor heaters not only provide a boost of heat for drafty spaces, but they can also be a money-saver, allowing you to actively control the heat based on the rooms you’re using. Outdoor heaters, meanwhile, can help you take advantage of cold-weather activities like camping or tailgating without having to call it quits because your extremities have gone numb. Check out this list of some of Amazon’s highest-rated indoor and outdoor heaters so you can spend less time shivering this winter and more time enjoying what the season has to offer.

Indoor Heaters

1. Lasko Ceramic Portable Heater; $20

Lasko/Amazon

This 1500-watt heater from Lasko may only be nine inches tall, but it can heat up to 300 square feet of space. With 11 temperature settings and three quiet settings—for high heat, low heat, and fan only—it’s a dynamic powerhouse that’ll keep you toasty all season long.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Alrocket Oscillating Space Heater; $25

Alrocket/Amazon

Alrocket’s oscillating space heater is an excellent addition to any desk or nightstand. Using energy-saving ceramic technology, this heater is made of fire-resistant material, and its special “tip-over” safety feature forces it to turn off if it falls over (making it a reliable choice for homes with kids or pets). It’s extremely quiet, too—at only 45 dB, it’s just a touch louder than a whisper. According to one reviewer, this an ideal option for a “very quiet but powerful” heater.

Buy it: Amazon

3. De’Longhi Oil-Filled Radiator Space Heather; $79

De’Longhi/Amazon

If you prefer a space heater with a more old-fashioned vibe, this radiator heater from De’Longhi gives you 2020 technology with a vintage feel. De’Longhi’s heater automatically turns itself on when the temperatures drops below 44°F, and it will also automatically turn itself off if it starts to overheat. Another smart safety feature? The oil system is permanently sealed, so you won’t have to worry about accidental spills.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Aikoper Ceramic Tower Heater; $70

Aikoper/Amazon

Whether your room needs a little extra warmth or its own heat source, Aikoper’s incredibly precise space heater has got you covered. With a range of 40-95°F, it adjusts by one-degree intervals, giving you the specific level of heat you want. It also has an option for running on an eight-hour timer, ensuring that it will only run when you need it.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Isiler Space Heater; $37

Isiler/Amazon

For a space heater that adds a fun pop of color to any room, check out this yellow unit from Isiler. Made from fire-resistant ceramic, Isiler’s heater can start warming up a space within seconds. It’s positioned on a triangular stand that creates an optimal angle for hot air to start circulating, rendering it so effective that, as one reviewer put it, “This heater needs to say ‘mighty’ in its description.”

Buy it: Amazon

Outdoor Heaters

6. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy; $104

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Make outdoor activities like camping and grilling last longer with Mr. Heater’s indoor/outdoor portable heater. This heater can connect to a propane tank or to a disposable cylinder, allowing you to keep it in one place or take it on the go. With such a versatile range of uses, this heater will—true to its name—become your best buddy when the temperature starts to drop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiland Pyramid Patio Propane Heater; Various

Hiland/Amazon

The cold’s got nothing on this powerful outdoor heater. Hiland’s patio heater has a whopping 40,000 BTU output, which runs for eight to 10 hours on high heat. Simply open the heater’s bottom door to insert a propane tank, power it on, and sit back to let it warm up your backyard. The bright, contained flame from the propane doubles as an outdoor light.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Solo Stove Bonfire Pit; $345

Solo Stove/Amazon

This one is a slight cheat since it’s a bonfire pit and not a traditional outdoor heater, but the Solo Stove has a 4.7-star rating on Amazon for a reason. Everything about this portable fire pit is meticulously crafted to maximize airflow while it's lit, from its double-wall construction to its bottom air vents. These features all work together to help the logs burn more completely while emitting far less smoke than other pits. It’s the best choice for anyone who wants both warmth and ambiance on their patio.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dr. Infrared Garage Shop Heater; $119

Dr. Infrared/Amazon

You’ll be able to use your garage or basement workshop all season long with this durable heater from Dr. Infrared. It’s unique in that it includes a built-in fan to keep warm air flowing—something that’s especially handy if you need to work without wearing gloves. The fan is overlaid with heat and finger-protectant grills, keeping you safe while it’s powered on.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Mr. Heater 540 Degree Tank Top; $86

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Mr. Heater’s clever propane tank top automatically connects to its fuel source, saving you from having to bring any extra attachments with you on the road. With three heat settings that can get up to 45,000 BTU, the top can rotate 360 degrees to give you the perfect angle of heat you need to stay cozy. According to a reviewer, for a no-fuss outdoor heater, “This baby is super easy to light, comes fully assembled … and man, does it put out the heat.”

Buy it: Amazon

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14 Facts About The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Its 45th Anniversary

Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Many movies can claim the title “cult classic,” but few have ever embodied that term quite like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. First written as a small stage production by an out-of-work actor who wanted to pay homage to the B movies he loved, the film version flopped at the box office when it premiered in 1975. Then, as midnight showings continued, its following grew, and grew, and grew.

People don’t just watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they live it—complete with costumes, props, and very vulgar audience participation. Since its release in 1975, it has remained the quintessential cult classic. So, to celebrate more than four decades of Absolute Pleasure, here are some facts about the film.

1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a way to keep an unemployed actor busy.

What would eventually become The Rocky Horror Show, and later The Rocky Horror Picture Show, began as a way for Richard O’Brien “to spend winter evenings” when he wasn’t working as an actor. O’Brien poured his love of science fiction and horror films into the initial Rocky Horror songs, and eventually he showed the material to director Jim Sharman while they were working on a play together. Sharman took a liking to it, and convinced London’s Royal Court theater to give him a few weeks in the venue’s tiny Upstairs theater to stage a production. It played for only a few dozen people a night, but eventually grew a following. Not bad for something that started as the equivalent “doing the crossword puzzle” for O’Brien.

2. Richard O’brien originally wanted to play the role of Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As the production took shape, O’Brien knew he wanted to co-star as the motorcycle-riding Eddie, a role that ultimately went to Meat Loaf. Sharman, though, saw O’Brien in the role of the mysterious handyman, Riff Raff, and O’Brien respected and trusted his director enough that he agreed.

3. Columbia and Magenta were originally one character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

As the stage play began casting, Sharman was hoping his friend, pop star Marianne Faithfull, would play Frank N. Furter’s female counterpart, but Little Nell had already been cast in the production. So Sharman and O’Brien reworked the role into two parts: Magenta and Columbia. When the time came to cast Magenta, Faithfull was already off on a tour of India, so Patricia Quinn was cast. Quinn took the role, despite having almost no lines, just so she could sing the lead song: “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” which she called “the best song I’ve ever heard.”

4. Little Nell was cast in The Rocky Horror Picture Show for her tap dancing skills alone.

“Little Nell” Campbell had a rather interesting audition for the role of Columbia. At the time the stage production was getting underway, she was working as a soda jerk in London. Jim Sharman heard that she would perform tap dances while serving ice cream, and took some collaborators to see her. She danced for them, and won the role.

5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank N. Furter originally had a German accent.

Tim Curry, Richard O'Brien, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Taking a cue from the character’s name, Tim Curry began the stage production of The Rocky Horror Show by playing Frank N. Furter as German. Then, one day, he heard a woman on a bus speaking with a particularly posh accent and decided, “Yes, he should sound like the Queen.”

6. “Science Fiction/Double Feature” had a different singer for the film.

As previously mentioned, Patricia Quinn took the Magenta role just so she could sing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” on the stage, but when it came time to film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was decided that O’Brien should sing the song instead. Quinn wasn’t happy, but she did get a small consolation: The iconic lips that sing the song in the opening credits are hers.

7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s director agreed to a smaller budget in order to keep the original cast.

According to Sharman, 20th Century Fox offered him “a reasonable budget” if he would cast “currently fashionable rock stars” in the lead roles for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sharman lobbied instead to keep the original stage cast (with some exceptions, like the addition of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), and instead got a “modest budget” and a very tight shooting schedule. Sharman now calls the decision “crucial” to the film’s cult success.

8. Much of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s look was inspired by an actual rotting mansion.

While preparing to shoot the film, set designer Brian Thomson kept hearing about “the old house” near Bray Studios outside of London. When he finally got to see the house, a 19th-century mansion called Oakley Court, he realized it was exactly what they needed for the film, in part because its owners had essentially left it to rot (they wanted to demolish it, but it was designated as a historic site).

“The minute we saw it, we realized that this gave us the basis for the whole look of the movie,” Thomson said.

Because of its proximity to Bray Studios, the house has also appeared in a number of other films, including several from the legendary Hammer Studios line of horror movies. It has since been restored, and is now a hotel.

9. A large portion of The Rocky Horror Picture Showwas supposed to be in black and white.

While conceiving of the film’s overall look, Sharman, Thomson, and company originally decided that the film’s opening act should be shot entirely in black and white, and that the first color in the movie should be Frank N. Furter’s red lips when he appeared on the elevator. The idea was that Brad and Janet were living in a bland world, and when they met Furter they would be shown something much more colorful. Ultimately, the studio rejected the idea.

10. The reveal of Eddie’s body genuinely shocked the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

For the iconic dinner party scene, in which Furter reveals that his guests have been dining on Eddie, Sharman elected to tell only Tim Curry—who had to pull away the tablecloth to reveal Eddie’s corpse—what the surprise of the scene was. He wanted the rest of the cast to be genuinely shocked.

11. A cardboard model was used to make the house fly in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

For the climactic scene in which Riff Raff and Magenta launch Furter’s house back to Transylvania, Thomson originally began constructing an elaborate model of the house. In the end, though, there wasn’t enough time or money to produce a full-scale model for the moment, so a cardboard cutout of the house was used. As Thomson later pointed out, you can still actually see the real house in the background of the shot.

12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous audience participation was inspired, in part, by boredom.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop when it was originally released in 1975, but as midnight showings continued it developed a rabid cult following with a penchant for shouting at the screen as the film played. Brian Thomson first witnessed this phenomenon at New York’s Waverly Theater in 1977, and when he asked what was going on, this was the reply:

“We thought it was pretty boring, and we thought if we yelled back [it would be more fun].”

13. Tim Curry was once kicked out of a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for being an “impostor.”

As the film’s cult following grew, Tim Curry was living in New York, just down the street from the Waverly Theater, so he often witnessed fans going to midnight showings in costume. Intrigued, he called the theater, told them who he was, and asked if he could attend. The theater initially didn’t believe him, until he actually showed up one night. “Finally I showed up, and they sort of believed me and took me in,” Curry later told NPR.

While fans were delighted by Curry’s presence, the theater staff still wasn’t convinced, and an usher grabbed him, called him an “impostor,” and threw him out. Curry then took out his passport to prove he was the real deal, but declined to go back into the theater after the staff apologized.

14. Princess Diana was a major The Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has many famous fans (Meat Loaf and Tim Curry actually met Elvis Presley at a Los Angeles performance of the stage production), but perhaps none more impressive than Diana, Princess of Wales. Once, while doing a theater performance in Austria, Curry was informed that the Princess wanted to meet him. When they met, she told him that the film “quite completed my education,” apparently flashing a “wicked smile” as she did so.

Additional Source:
The Rocky Horror Double Feature Video Show

This story has been updated for 2020.