20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Hamilton

Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus

No one could have predicted that a hip-hop-infused musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton would be Broadway’s hottest ticket, but Hamilton—which Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote over the course of six years—is sold out through next year. Here are a few things you might not have known about Miranda’s take on the life and times of the first Secretary of the Treasury.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY RON CHERNOW’S BIOGRAPHY OF HAMILTON.

Not long after his show In the Heights won four Tony Awards in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda went on vacation. Before he left, he picked up a biography called Alexander Hamilton. “I was just browsing the biography section. It could have been Truman,” he told 60 Minutes. “I got to the part where a hurricane destroys St. Croix, where Hamilton is living. And he writes a poem about the carnage and this poem gets him off the island.”

“That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself,” Miranda told The New York Times. “This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”

Miranda recalled to Vogue that “I Googled ‘Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical’ and totally expected to see that someone had already written it. But no. So I got to work.”

2. IT TOOK MIRANDA A YEAR TO WRITE THE FIRST SONG—AND ANOTHER YEAR TO WRITE THE SECOND SONG.

He performed the song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House in 2009 (you can watch the video above). “From what I hear,” Questlove, who produced the cast album, told Billboard, “the president won't cease to let you know that: ‘The White House is where it began.’”

It took Miranda another year to craft Hamilton’s anthem, “My Shot.” “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote,” Miranda told 60 Minutes. “That’s how seriously I was taking it.”

When he needed to come up with lyrics, he told Smithsonian, he walked. “For Hamilton what I’d do is write at the piano until I had something I liked,” he said. “I’d make a loop of it and put it in my headphones and then walk around until I had the lyrics. That’s where the notebooks come in, sort of write what comes to me, bring it back to the piano. I kind of need to be ambulatory to write lyrics.”

3. IT STARTED AS A MIXTAPE, NOT A MUSICAL.

Initially, Miranda said he was working on a concept album inspired by the life of Alexander Hamilton called The Hamilton Mixtape. “I always had an eye toward the stage for the story of Hamilton's life, but I began with the idea of a concept album, the way Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were albums before they were musicals,” Miranda recounted to the Hollywood Reporter. “And I built this score by dream casting my favorite artists. I always imagined George Washington as a mix between Common and John Legend (a pretty good description of Christopher Jackson, actually, who plays our first president); Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes; and Hamilton was modeled after my favorite polysyllabic rhyming heroes, Rakim, Big Pun, and Eminem.”

The reason, he told The New York Times, was because “I wanted to be a little more selfish with this—I wanted the lyrics to have the density that my favorite hip-hop albums have … It was easier to think of it as a hip-hop album, because then I could really just pack the lyrics. [But] I only know how to write musicals.” He performed 12 musical numbers from The Hamilton Mixtape at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series in January 2012; he began workshopping the show in 2014. It played The Public beginning in January 2015 and made the jump to Broadway in July 2015 (it officially opened in August).

4. MIRANDA DID HIS RESEARCH—BOTH HISTORICALLY AND MUSICALLY.

In addition to reading Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, Miranda read Hamilton’s letters and works and visited sites important to the American Revolution in New York City. He explained to The Atlantic that, to understand Burr, he read The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H.W. Brands, and to nail the dueling code of the day, he picked up Affairs of Honor by Joanne Freeman. He wrote, for a time, at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which Washington once used as a headquarters during the Revolutionary War. In October 2014, before the show began playing at The Public, he and director Thomas Kail went to the Weehawken, New Jersey dueling ground where Burr shot Hamilton (the actual dueling grounds are covered by train tracks now, but there is a small memorial there).

Miranda also looked at other musicals before diving into Hamilton, like Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables. “I really got my Les Miz on in this score, like being really smart about where to reintroduce a theme,” he told The New Yorker. “In terms of how it accesses your tear ducts, nothing does it better than that show.”

5. CHERNOW BECAME A HISTORICAL CONSULTANT FOR THE SHOW.

Miranda met Chernow before he performed the song that would become “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House (in fact, he sang the song to Chernow in the biographer’s living room), and soon Chernow became a consultant on the show. “[Miranda] was smart enough to know that the best way to dramatize this story was to stick as close to the facts as possible,” Chernow told 60 Minutes.

“I’m theater people, and theater people, the only history they know is the history they know from other plays and musicals,” Miranda told The Atlantic. “So to that end, I felt an enormous responsibility to be as historically accurate as possible, while still telling the most dramatic story possible. And that’s why Ron Chernow is a historical consultant on the thing, and, you know, he was always sort of keeping us honest. And when I did part from the historical record or take dramatic license, I made sure I was able to defend it to Ron, because I knew that I was going to have to defend it in the real world. None of those choices are made lightly.”

According to Smithsonian, Chernow looked at every draft and every song and assessed everything for accuracy.

6. THE SHOW WASN’T ALWAYS SUNG THROUGH.

Hamilton is sung and rapped from start to finish, but it wasn’t always that way. “We actually went down the road with a playwright,” Miranda told Grantland. “There’s a version of Act 1 where we had songs and they were the songs that are in the show, but we found that if you start with our opening number, you can’t go back to speech. The ball is just thrown too high in the air.”

The show features one scene that isn’t sung, and which Miranda kept off of the cast album: In “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us,” which takes place between “Dear Theodosia” and “Non-Stop,” Hamilton finds out that his friend Laurens has been killed. “I made a decision not to record this scene on the album, for two reasons,” Miranda wrote on Tumblr:

1) It really is more of a scene than a song, the only SCENE in our show, and I think its impact is at its fullest in production form. 2) As someone who grew up ONLY listening to cast albums (we ain’t have money for a lot of Broadway shows, like most people) those withheld moments were REVELATIONS to me when I finally experienced them onstage, years later. Hamilton is sung through, and I wanted to have at least ONE revelation in store for you. I stand by the decision, and I think the album is better for it.

7. HE WROTE KING GEORGE’S SONG ON HIS HONEYMOON.

Because he’s an interloper on the proceedings of Hamilton, King George’s song, You'll Be Back, is quite different from the rest of the show’s numbers. “It’s a throwback to a sixties Beatles tune,” Jonathan Groff, who plays King George, told Vogue. “And it’s a breakup song between America and England, which is fabulous. He’s like, ‘You’re leaving me? Oh, really? Well, good luck with that.’” Miranda wrote the song while on his honeymoon in 2010 “without a piano around,” he told Grantland.

8. THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF “MY SHOT” HAD AN EXTRA VERSE FOR HERCULES MULLIGAN.

“I’m Hercules Mulligan, a tailor spying on the British Government / I take the measurements, information and then I smuggle it / Up to my brother's revolutionary covenant / I’m running with the Sons of Liberty, and I’m loving it,” Mulligan raps. At that point, neither the Marquis de Lafayette nor John Laurens were part of the song. You can hear the rest of the demo here; portions of Mulligan’s verse ended up in “Yorktown (World Turned Upside Down).”

9. MIRANDA WROTE “WAIT FOR IT” ON THE SUBWAY.

“I was going to a friend’s birthday party in [Brooklyn],” he said, when a lyric from the chorus to Aaron Burr’s song, “Wait for It,” came to him.  “I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for 15 minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.”

10. THE RAP IN “GUNS AND SHIPS” IS FAST. REALLY, REALLY FAST.

“I believe that form [rap] is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story, because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre,” Miranda told 60 Minutes. “It has rhythm, and it has density, and if Hamilton had anything in his writing, it was this density.” The use of rap helps Miranda pack more than 20,000 words into two and a half hours—roughly 144 words per minute, according to Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight. “If Hamilton were sung at the pace of the other Broadway shows I looked at, it would take four to six hours,” Libresco wrote. She found that the musical’s fastest paced verse, from the song “Guns and Ships,” clocked in at 6.3 words per second.

11. THE SONGS SAMPLE RAP MUSIC AND REFERENCE RAP SONGS—AS WELL AS OTHER MUSICALS.

As a show that has its roots in rap, it’s not surprising that Miranda has peppered Hamilton with rap references and samples: “My Shot” has elements of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II” and an homage to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Going Back to Cali”; the song “Ten Duel Commandments” samples B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments”; the opening to “Cabinet Battle #1” references Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and contains parts of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash; “Meet Me Inside” contains elements of DMX’s “Party Up in Here (Up in Here)”; and “Cabinet Battle #2” references B.I.G’s “Juicy (It’s All Good).” These themes—and samples—show up in other songs throughout Hamilton.

Miranda pays homage to good old fashioned Broadway shows, too: He snatched a line from South Pacific for Burr (“I’m with you but the situation is fraught / You’ve got to be carefully taught,” in “My Shot”), makes reference to the song "Modern Major General" from Pirates of Penzance (when Washington sings, “The model of a modern major general / the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me on a pedestal,” in “Right Hand Man”), and put parts of “Nobody Needs to Know” from The Last Five Years in “Say No to This.”

Miranda’s lyrics are also packed with historical references. We decoded a few here, and many are annotating the lyrics on Genius (Miranda has also weighed in there). Miranda is working on his own book of annotated lyrics, which will hit stores in April. “I am writing a new set of annotations for the book,” he tweeted. “Not what you'd find on Genius, just things in my brain & heart.”  

12. AT FIRST, MIRANDA COULDN’T DECIDE IF HE WANTED TO PLAY HAMILTON OR BURR.

“I feel an equal affinity with Burr,” he told The New Yorker. “Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton. But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward. I feel like I have been Burr in my life as many times as I have been Hamilton.” But eventually, he chose Hamilton: “When I get called in for stuff for Hollywood, I get to be the best friend of the Caucasian lead. If I want to play the main guy, I have found, I have to write it ...  [As Hamilton], I get to be cockier than I really am; I get to be smarter than I really am; I get to be more impulsive than I really am—it’s taking the reins off your id for two and a half hours.”

Burr is now played by Leslie Odom Jr. “I stupidly gave him a lot of the best songs,” Miranda told Grantland. “‘Wait for It’ and ‘The Room Where It Happens’ are two of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life and he got them both.”

13. THE CASTING CHOICES WERE DELIBERATE.

“Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance—our story should look the way our country looks,” Miranda told The New York Times. “Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it’s a very powerful statement without having to be a statement.” The only main character played by a white actor is King George.

“When I think about what it would mean to me as a 13-, 14-year-old kid, to get this album or see this show—it can make me very emotional,” Odom told The New York Times.

14. MIRANDA CUT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S DEATH FROM THE SHOW.

Initially, Washington’s death was in the show—but Miranda cut it. “Oof. I wrote that. Brutal,” he tweeted:

One cut line...

BURR: And in our grief-
HAMILTON/JEFFERSON: He unites us one last time.

“It was a cut musical moment, & actually began with Burr singing, ‘I hear wailing in the streets…,’” he continued. He cut it, he said, “because we sing a whole song about him saying goodbye and even though the moment gave us feels, it was redundant.”

15. THE LOTTERY FOR TICKETS SOMETIMES FEATURES ITS OWN SHOW.

So far, #Ham4Ham—as the show is called—has regularly featured members of Hamilton’s cast as well as other Broadway performers; it takes place on the street outside the Richard Rodgers theater. Among other things, Miranda has dueted with Broadway star Lea Salonga; answered audience questions with just Les Miz lyrics; showed his love for the show’s tech people by running the entire cast through a number while the cues were called; presided over the three actors who have played King George lip syncing a song from the show; and hosted a contest to see which Hamilton fan could nail the Lafayette rap in “Guns and Ships.” Miranda puts on the show, he told Rolling Stone, because he knows that most of the hundreds of people who line up for the lottery won’t win, and he doesn’t want them to walk away with nothing.

16. WHEN CELEBRITIES COME BACKSTAGE, THEY SIGN A LIFE-SIZED CUTOUT OF HAMILTON.

Jennifer Lopez, Danny DeVito, Steven Spielberg, Sting, Jon Lasseter, Oprah, Vice President Joe Biden, and more have put their kind words—and their John Hancocks—on and around Hamilton.

17. THE STARS OF THE SHOW HELPED TO RAISE MONEY FOR THE ORPHANAGE ELIZA HAMILTON STARTED.

In 1806, Eliza Hamilton was one of the founders of New York City’s first private orphanage; these days, it’s called Graham Windham. Miranda and Philippa Soo, who plays Eliza in Hamilton, performed at an event to raise money for the organization. “What a time at the @GrahamWindham luncheon today,” he tweeted. “When the kids (from ELIZA'S ORGANIZATION) sang ‘Eliza, you have done enough.’ I mean…”

18. THE PRESIDENT IS A HUGE FAN.

President Obama called the show “brilliant,” adding, “so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.”

19. IT HAS STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S SEAL OF APPROVAL.

At some point, Miranda showed his songs to Steven Sondheim, the man behind Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and many more musicals, who told The New York Times, “He sent me lyrics printed out, and recordings of the songs. This raised obvious red flags: I worried that an evening of rap might get monotonous; I thought the rhythm might become relentless. But the wonderful thing about Lin-Manuel’s use of rap is that he’s got one foot in the past. He knows theater … Hamilton is a breakthrough … We’ll certainly see more rap musicals. The next thing we’ll get is Lincoln set to rap. If you think I’m kidding, talk to me in a year.”

20. THERE’S GOING TO BE AN ACTUAL MIXTAPE.

Though Hamilton evolved beyond Miranda’s original vision, there are now plans to make a mixtape for real: “So the show is done. Cast album is out. Now we begin planning The Hamilton Mixtape. Remixes & Covers & Inspired bys. FOR REAL. GET READY,” he tweeted in October. “I was originally trying to get the mixtape done with Atlantic before we opened, but that's like performing surgery while having a baby.” The mixtape will feature a third, unreleased rap battle, “where Ham, Mad & Jeff go IN on slavery,” Miranda tweeted. “It was sort of our homage to ‘Hail Mary’ [by Tupac Shakur],” he told Billboard. Hopefully, it will also feature this cut rap about John Adams (who once called Hamilton the "bastard brat of a Scot peddler"). There’s no firm date, but the mixtape is expected early next year.

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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