29 Fun Facts About My Cousin Vinny

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Familiarize yourself with legal procedure, and these facts about My Cousin Vinny—the classic 1992 comedy in which a very green, fish-out-of-water lawyer defends two “yutes” mistakenly charged with murder in his first court case. (Warning: There's profanity in the clips below!)


My Cousin Vinny

was one of the earliest ideas screenwriter Dale Launer ever had. “In the very early '70s, I met a guy who ... was waiting the bar exam results,” he told ABA Journal in 2012. Launer asked what would happen if he didn't pass, and the guy said he could just take it again, and if he didn't pass that time, he'd just take it again. And again. Until he passed. “So I said, 'What’s the most times somebody has taken and failed and finally passed?'” Launer recalled. “He said, 'Thirteen times.' ... I always thought that guy who took 13 times to pass the bar, or girl, is probably out there practicing law in some capacity. Now, how would you feel if suddenly you learned that guy is your lawyer? ... What if you have been accused of a crime and clearly, you have what appears to be the worst lawyer in the country?”


According to the bio on his website, Launer set off on a road trip across the South for script research. He rented a car in New Orleans, then drove through Mississippi and Alabama and down the Gulf Coast. The trip provided plenty of inspiration for scenes that would eventually make it into the script: Launer’s car got stuck in the mud, every restaurant had grits on the menu, and he experienced the unearthly call of the screech owl. He even stopped to talk to the district attorney in Butler, who reminded him of Lane Smith; the actor was eventually cast in the role of Vinny’s DA.

Also a big inspiration: the attitude of the people he met along the way. Everyone “was very friendly and helpful,” according to the bio, “but when he told them he was making a movie that took place in the south—they'd get very concerned—afraid that Hollywood movies always made them look like bumpkins. That too [was] weaved into the story.”


Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

After the script was written, a casting meeting was called and Launer met with Fox’s president, vice president, and CEO. When Launer suggested Robert De Niro for the part of Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, “the prez looked uncomfortable, embarrassed that I would suggest such an actor,” Launer told Writer Unboxed. “‘De Niro, uh … well … he’s not funny. And … his movies don’t make money.’ … Now ... the only movies De Niro acts in that make money? Comedies! So, I feel vindicated. But I wish I could’ve been given a big fat check when I [ended up] being proved right.”


“I was very eager to have Ralph Macchio in the movie,” Lynn said in the movie’s DVD commentary. “I must confess, I had never actually seen The Karate Kid. I watched him in a couple of videos that his agent sent and I thought he was just perfect for the part. … He’s very good in the movie.”


“There’s a lot of people around like that in smaller neighborhoods, so I put a few of them together and [came] up with Vinny,” Pesci, who grew up in New Jersey, told The Movie Show in 1992.


In 2007, Launer told Writer Unboxed that the studio had wanted to get rid of Vinny’s Chinese-food-loving, unemployed hairdresser/car expert girlfriend. To keep the character, Launer reluctantly added a scene, requested by the studio president, to the second draft: “He wanted Vinny’s girlfriend to complain that he’s not giving her enough attention,” Launer said. “You often see movies where some guy is hell bent on accomplishing something, and you’re on the ride with him—and his wife/girlfriend/mother is feeling neglected. And she complains. And I HATE this! ... Watching those scenes is simply boring. You want to fast forward it. Awful.”

Eventually, he said he “figured out a way where they’d HAVE to keep her and embellished her character ... she does complain, but at least apologizes for bringing it up, and you don’t hate her for bringing it up largely because it’s funny. ... Now, I thought if she brought this up at this point where he is simply going through hell—he should be pissed off. And he is. So he kinda tears into her.” Mona Lisa’s “biological clock” rant (above) became one of his favorite scenes in the script.


Mitchell Whitfield had just moved to Los Angeles from New York when he got word about the My Cousin Vinny auditions—which were taking place in New York. So he flew back to do the screen test. “Believe it or not, Will Smith was also up for the role,” Whitfield told Abnormal Use. “So, clearly, they didn’t know exactly which way they were going to go with the part. ... I think it could have been funny either way.” Whitfield ended up having to lose 25 pounds to play Stan.


Tomei didn’t have a lot of film experience when she landed the part of Mona Lisa Vito. “I’d seen her [on the set of Oscar] working with John Landis and [had] gone with [him] to the cutting room to look at her performance,” Lynn said in DVD commentary.” She was playing a 1920s blonde flapper, very different, but I could see how funny and talented she was. And we got her in to read. She read wonderfully and we persuaded the studio to let me go with this unknown actress in the role. It was the best decision I ever made.” Lynn said he knew they’d gotten the right actress for the part when he saw the dailies from the first scene they shot with her—Mona Lisa and Vinny’s arrival in Alabama, when she tells him, “Oh, yeah, you blend.”


Tomei grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, so “I really knew the neighborhood,” she told The New York Times in 1992. But that doesn’t mean she sounded just like Mona Lisa. “I don’t think that extreme, but I could be wrong,” she told NPR’s Fresh Air in 2010. “My mom was an English teacher, and she was on my butt about that kind of thing and correcting my speech from a young age.”


Lynn has a law degree from Cambridge University, and, he said in DVD commentary, “I get terribly irritated when I see films in which the legal procedure is obviously wrong.” In addition to Launer’s research, Lynn made adjustments to make sure the legal proceedings were correct. “I’m very pleased with the fact that, although this is heightened for comedic purposes, everything you see legally in this film could happen and is approximately correct,” he said. “Which, by the way, makes it the more frightening.” Lynn even sat in on a murder trial in the Monticello, Ga. courtroom that served as the inspiration for the Vinny courtroom set. “Some of the lines in the [Vinny trial] came directly from that trial,” he said, including Lane Smith’s pronunciation of heinous (“high-a-nus”) and his line about “our little old ancestors” in the opening remarks.



In the original script, when Vinny is asked why it took him six times to pass the bar, he says, “I’m a little dyslexic.” Viewers would have experienced it themselves while watching Vinny attempt to read the huge book of Alabama Criminal Court procedure; Launer envisioned that the camera would show a close shot of a word jumbled up, gradually becoming less so until Vinny could read it—and the pattern would repeat itself as Vinny moved to the next word.

Ultimately, the idea got cut because Lynn “said he did not know how to portray dyslexia,” Launer told Abnormal Use. The screenwriter was very unhappy about the omission because it made Vinny seem “not so bright. You don’t know why it took him so long to get through the bar. And then suddenly he starts acting smart. What you have to do is make assumptions that he is actually a smart guy, and the law is just complicated and boring. And for some reason, he didn’t pay attention. ... I don’t know if there is any other conclusion than that.” In the final film, there’s no reason given for why it took Vinny six times to pass the bar.


The book featured real moments from actual courtrooms. Launer lifted the memorable voir dire scene of a potential juror for Vinny. The lawyers “ask them their opinion on capital punishment, and they said something like, ‘I think it should be left up to the victims' families,’” Launer told Abnormal Use. “Then they then described exactly what the murderer did, and then that the juror actually said, ‘Fry them.’ So I put that right in the movie.”


The cast and crew shot for several days in a state prison in Gainesville, Georgia, in the wing where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. “It does have a death row, right beside the wing where we were shooting, and I looked all around death row,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “It was a very frightening building, and we were all pretty scared when we were there, even though we had guards with us at all times.”

It took up to 40 minutes to get from the outside of the building to where they were shooting inside. Whitfield told Abnormal Use that “When Ralph and I were walking through the prison the first time like holding our blankets and walking to our cell and you hear the prisoners screaming at us. Those are real prisoners, and they really were yelling at us. ... They had to tone it down with what they put in the movie because they were saying some horrible stuff. Ralph and I were petrified.”


The guards in the movie were real prison guards. The production used real prisoners as extras twice: once in the background when Stan and Bill are being brought into the prison, and during a short scene where the duo plays basketball during exercise time. “The prisoners were all extremely cooperative and did exactly what we asked,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “I don’t know what incentives or threats were made in order to achieve that.”


The scene had appeared in the script Lynn initially read, but had been cut from the shooting script. Everyone agreed that it had to go back in, and it garnered some of the biggest laughs from audiences. The scene, of course, could never have really happened; any interaction between the accused and their lawyers would have to take place in an interview room—an issue the filmmakers discussed at length. Making it factually accurate, Lynn said, “would have meant losing that extremely funny scene, and we decided to bet that nobody noticed that it should have taken place in an interview room—and, in fact, nobody ever did.”


In the scene where Vinny is convincing Bill to let him represent him, Vinny does a card trick. “It was important to me that the card trick wasn’t faked,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “Of course you can fake anything by cutting and showing another shot, but I talked about this to Joe before we started shooting, and he learned how to do this card trick. So the scene in which he does it does not have any cuts in it. He actually fools the audience before their very eyes. He did it beautifully. I thought Vinny’s argument would be much less powerful if the audience could say oh well that was just faked by the way the scene was cut.”


In prep, someone at the studio pointed out what they thought was a big problem: What kind of Italian mother doesn’t come down to support her son when he’s on trial? “Well, that was a tough question, because the answer is, Mother ought to have been there,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. “But she would just have been a damn nuisance. The script was already long enough ... and we didn’t want to introduce another character who had no other plot function.” To compromise, the filmmakers added some scenes where, after Vinny comes down to Alabama, Bill’s mother has a heart attack. “We had Bill trying to keep in touch with mother in hospital and getting messages and there were a couple of scenes to do with mother’s heart attack; we never saw her,” Lynn said. “When we started putting the film together in the cutting room, it was just obvious that these scenes were going to be in the way of the momentum of the film. And we said, ‘Why don’t we just try leaving them out and see if anyone notices that mother never shows up?’ Nobody ever noticed. So we took those scenes out and saved between 5 and 10 minutes of stuff we really didn’t need.”


One of the film’s running gags is the fact that Vinny is always awakened by something—a steam whistle, noisy pigs, and, finally, a screech owl. Lynn and his team used an actual owl for the scene, “which was probably a ridiculous chance to take,” he said in DVD commentary. “People … think it’s a Muppet because its behavior was so perfect. It screeched, it looked back at Vinny, and then it looked back at the camera and screeched again. We got amazingly lucky with that screech owl.”

The owl’s screeches were added later. To get the bird to open his mouth at the right time, they used a trick: “We discovered that if you put a little bit of meat into its beak, it half swallows [it] and then, approximately three seconds later, opens its beak as the meat goes down,” Lynn said. “So we fed it a little bit of beef just before the camera starting turning so that for its first screech, which is added afterwards, his beak opened at the right moment. Everything else he did in that scene was pure luck, and we couldn’t believe our eyes when he reacted so perfectly, and of course we never shot it again.” The owl was basically a wild animal, Lynn said, though it had been trained a little bit: “He had heard a lot of gunfire in the previous weeks so that he wouldn’t get frightened by it.”


Director Jonathan Lynn cast his friend, Austin Pendleton—who, Lynn said, has a stutter in real life—in the role of the tongue-tied public defender. “I knew he would be really funny in that part,” Lynn told Abnormal Use. “But I really didn’t quite imagine just how funny. And I had to literally hide behind the camera. I normally sit by the camera. But I had to hide because I was laughing so hard. I had to somehow stop myself from making a sound, and I couldn’t let Austin be put off by seeing me … That’s the funniest moment I’ve had on any film I’ve ever made.” Whitfield agreed, telling Abnormal Use, “if you watch the movie and you see us at the table when he’s stuttering, and my shoulders are going up and down like I’m crying, I was laughing. I couldn’t help it.”


The conversation between Vinny and Judge Chamberlain Haller about “two yutes” became “perhaps the most quoted piece of dialogue from the film,” Lynn said in DVD commentary. It was inspired by a conversation that Lynn and Pesci had when they were prepping the film at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City. “He said something about ‘these two yutes’ who were on trial and I said ‘what?’ and he said ‘what?’ and I said ‘what’s a yute?’” Lynn recalled. “I realized as we were having that conversation that that was something that ought to happen between Vinny and the judge, so I simply wrote it in the way it happened naturally.”


The night before they shot the scene where Vinny sleeps like a baby during a prison riot after being held in contempt of court, Pesci had won the Oscar for Goodfellas. “He flew in from Los Angeles, and on the first take, when we panned to him, he was clutching the Oscar in his arms,” Lynn said in DVD commentary, laughing. “We sent that to the studio as the dailies.”


Though the film is set in Alabama, the production actually shot in three separate small towns in Georgia. “Apart from the courtroom,” which was a set, “virtually everything was shot on location,” director Jonathan Lynn said in Vinny’s DVD commentary. “It wasn’t a very expensive movie, and that was the cheaper way to go. It also had more authenticity.” Which means you can visit a number of the film’s locations—including the newly reopened Sac-O-Suds convenience store, where you can pick up a can of tuna. (Just make sure you pay for it!)


“The movie is close to reality even in its details,” lawyer Maxwell S. Kennerly wrote on his blog, Trial and Litigation. “Part of why the film has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, A Few Good Men, everything that happens in the movie could happen—and often does happen—at trial.” Professor Alberto Bernabe of The John Marshall Law School, who hands his students a list of law movies organized by category, puts Vinny under “Education,” not just because “it provides so much material you can use in the classroom. For example, you can use the movie to discuss criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy.” The film has also been praised by a Seventh Circuit Court Judge; referenced by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; used to teach young lawyers at legal conferences; and made it into a legal textbook.


Coming in at number three, “The movie packs in cinema’s briefest opening argument ('Everything that guy just said is bulls**t'), its best-ever introduction to the rules of criminal procedure, and a case that hinges on properly introduced expert testimony regarding tire marks left by a 1964 Skylark and the optimal boiling time of grits,” the journal writes. Launer said the honor was “like getting the Oscar. In some ways, better.” Vincent Gambini came in at Number 12 on the association's list of Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Aren't Atticus Finch).


Tomei was sleeping on a friend’s couch—a friend who was pregnant and due at any moment—when she found out about her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Her friends were watching TV, and “there were shouts from the other room, and they awoke me,” she told David Letterman in 1993. “I didn’t know if she was going into labor or what.” Tomei would go on to win the Oscar—and yes, despite the urban legend that 74-year-old presenter Jack Palance announced the wrong name, the actress really did win.


In 2004, Lautner’s bio noted that “Joe wanted to do it, but Marisa didn't. Now she does, and so does Joe, but the studio isn't terribly interested in the remake, feeling too much time has passed since the initial release. Perhaps everyone who liked it has passed on. Or changed their minds. Launer hopes they will see the light.” According to Whitfield, the sequel might have involved Vinny going to Europe.


Before he was an actor, Pesci was a lounge singer; six years after My Cousin Vinny came out, he released an album called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. It features the songs “Wise Guy,” “Take Your Love and Shove It,” “Yo Cousin Vinny,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a duet with Tomei as Mona Lisa. It debuted at Number 36 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart.


Banda yeh bindaas hai

("This Guy is Fearless") was directed by Ravi Chopra and starred Govinda, Lara Dutta, and Sushmita Sen. Chopra reached out to Fox in 2007 for approval to produce the remake, and was given permission to make a film loosely based on the original idea. But in May 2009, Fox sued Banda yeh bindaas hai's production company, B.R. Films, for $1.4 million, saying the remake had not been approved, and that a script review showed the film to be "a 'substantial reproduction' of the U.S. film" with an identical storyline, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. B.R. Films denied the claims, saying their version featured different characters and settings; the company eventually settled with Fox in August 2009, paying the studio $200,000.


“I would not say that I am Mona Lisa Vito of the football world,” Belichik said when asked what he knew about football pressure. When she heard, Tomei texted Pesci. "We thought it was pretty funny," she told The Rich Eisen Show.

This post originally ran in 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."