13 Royal Facts About Three Kings On Its 20th Anniversary

Ice Cube, George Clooney, and Mark Wahlberg in David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999).
Ice Cube, George Clooney, and Mark Wahlberg in David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999).
Warner Bros.

On October 1, 1999, Warner Bros. released David O. Russell’s war-action-comedy Three Kings. Originally based off a script written by John Ridley called Spoils of War, it stars George Clooney—who, at the time, was still known primarily as a TV actor—as U.S. Army Special Forces Major Archie Gates. Pre-action film actor Mark Wahlberg plays U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow, Ice Cube stars as Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin, and director Spike Jonze (whose Being John Malkovich came out less than a month later) portrays Private First Class Conrad Vig.

The film takes place in March of 1991, shortly after the Gulf War ended. The men—who are based in Iraq—embark on a mission to steal back millions in gold that Saddam Hussein had taken from Kuwait. The film wasn’t filmed in the Middle East; instead, it was filmed in the Arizona desert, California, and Mexico. A year after the film came out, George W. Bush was elected president, and soon the U.S. was mired in another Iraq war. Budgeted at $50 million, the film grossed more than $107 million worldwide. Here are 13 royal facts about the movie.

1. David O. Russell spent 18 months researching and writing the script. 

A logline in Warner’s logbook caught writer/director David O. Russell’s attention. The logline, written by John Ridley, stated Spoils of War was “a heist set in the Gulf War.” “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Russell told Creative Screenwriting. “I started buying books about the Gulf—photojournalist books that had amazing images in them, like hundreds of soldiers being stripped in the desert and Bart Simpson dolls on grills of cars. All this incongruous stuff. So I went off, researched, and wrote it for 18 months. It was a fun scriptwriting process, like no other I’d ever done. It’s not character-driven, which is obvious from the movie. There was very volatile material which hadn’t been put in the face of Americans about what really happened there. I read papers, talked to veterans and Iraqis. Then I sewed together the quilt of this script. It was liberating, because it was blank as the desert, a palette where I could do a lot of different things, including action, which I hadn’t done before.”

2. John Ridley didn't think David O. Russell gave him enough credit.

Russell said the only thing he used from Ridley’s original script was the “heist set in the Gulf War” part. “That was all I took from his script, and frankly, that’s the most boring thing about the movie,” Russell said. Ridley told Entertainment Weekly he wrote the script “to see how fast I could write and sell a screenplay,” which turned out to be seven days (writing) and only 18 days to sell it. But after Russell took hold of the script, relations between the two soured.

“This is a guy who every step of the way has tried to grab credit,” Ridley said. “I never heard a word while he was shooting the movie. Never saw any of the script changes. And then finally, a year later, I get a copy of the script, and my name isn’t even on it. It’s ‘by David O. Russell.’ My name is nowhere.” Ridley eventually received a story and co-producer credit, even though Russell rewrote most of the script. “It’s still my story,” Ridley said.

“I don’t understand what his whining is about, because it’s the most common experience in Hollywood,” Russell said. “You write a script, you sell it, and get paid. Goodbye. If he wants to direct his own scripts, he should control them a little bit. If he thinks it’s such a work of genius, I think he’d let me publish my script. I even offered to publish both scripts in one volume.”

Ridley blocked Russell’s attempt to publish Three Kings in book form. “I’ve been completely disrespected through this whole process and now they’re asking for a favor? The answer is no.” Despite what Ridley went through, his career has continued to rise; in 2014, he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. (Five-time Oscar nominee Russell has yet to win a golden guy).

3. George Clooney begged David O. Russell to be in the movie.

Nicolas Cage was in contention for the role of Major Gates, until he opted to make Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead instead. Clooney read the script and wanted to be in the film, so he wrote a letter to Russell and signed it “George Clooney, TV Actor.” He was so desperate to be cast, he proffered the director an early cut of Out of Sight, and went to Russell’s house.

“He opened the door with his video camera,” Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. "It’s very annoying. And [Russell] said, ‘Does this bother you?’ And I said, ‘It will only if I don’t get the job … If I end up in The Making of Three Kings and I’m not in the movie, then I’ll look like an a**hole.'"

4. David O. Russell decided against using a lot of bullets.

Ice Cube, George Clooney, and Spike Jonze in 'Three Kings' (1999).
Ice Cube, George Clooney, and Spike Jonze in Three Kings (1999).
Warner Bros. Entertainment

Though it’s a war film, Russell purposefully didn’t want a lot of bullets used in the action sequences. “The whole approach I took to the bullets in the movie was that I tried to make each bullet alive," Russell told Contact Music. "The audience has been numbed to bullets. So, number one, that means fewer bullets. If you have hundreds of bullets, like in other movies, you're going to be numbed.”

One scene tracks a hypothetical bullet entering Wahlberg, which came about from Russell asking a doctor friend about what a bullet does to the body. “I said, ‘What’s the weirdest wound?’ and he described that particular wound [used in the movie]. You can get a wound that doesn't kill you. A bullet goes through your lung and you can walk around, but the air is leaking out of your lung every time you breathe, so your own breathing can kill you because your own breathing will crush your organs. It will turn into a balloon in there. And they have to puncture it to let the air out. So he told me those two things, and I said, ‘God, that's never been in a movie. I'd like to do that.’”

5. David O. Russell started a rumor about using a real corpse for filming.

After a Newsweek reporter interrogated Russell with aggressive questions he didn’t want to answer, the director decided to invent a story about using a real corpse in the aforementioned bullet scene. “I said that we used an actual corpse … and we had only one take using a high-speed camera to get that bullet going right through, and the toughest thing was getting a light in there,” he told Creative Screenwriting. “So he writes the thing up and the next thing the morticians’ association is calling Warner Bros. and protesting the unethical use of a corpse. It was kind of fun. Harmless.”

Russell further explained to news outlets that the rumor was false. “The intention [of the shot] was to make it look like a bullet going through a corpse. It would be unethical to use a corpse like that. To achieve the effect, we had to build a prosthesis.”

6. George Clooney called the making of Three Kings "the worst experience" of his life.

In what would become a famed feud, the director and actor got huffy with each other on the set of Three Kings. "For me, it came to a head a couple of times," Clooney explained in an interview with Playboy. "Once, he went after a camera-car driver who I knew from high school. I had nothing to do with his getting his job, but David began yelling and screaming at him and embarrassing him in front of everybody. I told him, 'You can yell and scream and even fire him, but what you can’t do is humiliate him in front of people. Not on my set, if I have any say about it.' Another time he screamed at the script supervisor and made her cry. I wrote him a letter and said, 'Look, I don’t know why you do this. You’ve written a brilliant script, and I think you’re a good director. Let’s not have a set like this. I don’t like it and I don’t work well like this.'"

Cooler heads prevailed until the two experienced a stressful day of filming which entailed helicopters and 300 extras. According to Clooney, Russell threw an extra to the ground and kicked him. Clooney tried to calm the director down, but it didn’t work. “I went over and put my arm around him,” Clooney said. “I said, ‘David, it’s a big day. But you can’t shove, push, or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.’ He turned on me and said, ‘Why don’t you just worry about your f***ed-up act? You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, p***y, hit me.’ I’m looking at him like he’s out of his mind. Then he started banging me on the head with his head. He goes, ‘Hit me, you p***y. Hit me.’ Then he got me by the throat and I went nuts ... I had him by the throat. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologized, but I walked away. By then the Warner Bros. guys were freaking out. David sort of pouted through the rest of the shoot and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.”

Since the incident, they’ve been frenemies. Clooney talked to Russell at a party a few years ago. “I felt compelled to go over and go, 'So are we done?'” Clooney told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “He goes, ‘Please.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ Because we made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it’s a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I'm trying to do.”

In 2013, Russell told The New York Times the fight’s now water under the bridge. “George and I had a friendly rapport last year. I don’t know if we would be working together. I don’t think we would rule it out. But the point is, much ado was made about things long passed.”

7. David O. Russell wrote the character of Private Vig with Spike Jonze in mind.

Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze in 'Three Kings' (1999).
Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze in Three Kings (1999).
Warner Bros.

“I wrote this character with him in mind,” Russell told Entertainment Weekly. Three Kings was Jonze’s first major film role, and as Private Vig, he had to employ a Southern accent. Russell practiced with Jonze to see if he could pull it off for the movie. “All last summer when Spike was shooting Malkovich we would speak on the phone in Southern accents because I wanted to see if he could do it—because it would really ruin our friendship if he tried and it didn’t work out.” After Warner Bros. approved the casting, Jonze was in. “I like the chaos that a non-actor brings to the set,” Russell said. “He has a level of realism because he hasn’t been through it before, and he really shakes things up.”

8. Christian Bale auditioned for the movie.

More than a decade before he won an Oscar for Russell’s The Fighter, Christian Bale auditioned for the role of Private Vig. “Well, I won’t go into it, but I auditioned for Three Kings and it didn't go very well for me,” Bale said. Russell, who was also on the show, joked, “The world is filled with actors who have audition stories."

9. Ice Cube would like to make a sequel.

When, in 2014, The Believer asked Ice Cube if he’d be interested in shooting a sequel to Three Kings, he said absolutely. “I think that movie is much more understood today than when it came out,” Cube explained. “I think it was hell of a movie. Me and Mark became friends, Clooney was always cool even when I was whipping his ass on the basketball court. David was real cool … It was a social commentary of what was going on. That film discussed the politics of Papa Bush, and now we are dealing with Baby Bush, and I think the film is probably more relevant today than when it came out.”

10. George Clooney injured Nora Dunn with an apple.

George Clooney and Nora Dunn in 'Three Kings' (1999)
George Clooney and Nora Dunn in Three Kings (1999).
Warner Bros.

During filming, Nora Dunn—who plays TV reporter Adriana Cruz—heckled Clooney. “I was like, ‘You watch it because I’ll hit you. I’m not scared of hitting women,’” Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. After she yelled for him to bring it on, he attached an apple to a car antenna and catapulted it in her direction, where it hit her in the forehead. “There were 300 troops in the scene, and I ran around getting high-fives from everybody,” he said. But Dunn wasn’t so celebratory. “He almost knocked me out,” she said. ”He felt bad, but not that bad.”

11. Bill Clinton appreciated the movie.

Then-POTUS Bill Clinton invited Russell to the White House to screen the film for him. “We showed the movie and it was a real quiet house,” Russell told Creative Screenwriting. “I was dying. The humor is not like There’s Something About Mary’s humor in big block letters: HEY, LAUGH AT THIS! LAUGH AT THIS! The material is as disturbing as it is funny. So I think people were self-conscious about laughing at stuff in front of the President so they wouldn’t commit a faux pas.”

Apparently, Clinton liked the movie. “There were a couple times where Clinton guffawed really loudly and my wife elbowed me and said, ‘Bubba likes that.’ After the movie, to my pleasant surprise, he held a two-hour impromptu seminar about the history of Iraq policy going back to the 1920s when the artificial borders were created. He’s a bright guy and he was cool. He said, ‘Apart from being a fabulous movie, this is an important movie because people need to know how this war really ended.’ He’s not shy about that sh*t.”

12. Warner Bros. declined to include a documentary David O. Russell made on the war for a DVD released.

Warner Bros. wanted to put the movie back in theaters in time for the 2004 election, and they also wanted to package a new DVD with additional material. “I didn’t have any more deleted scenes, or at least nothing that was worth tacking on to a DVD,” Russell told The Believer. “So I decided to do a short documentary. Not about the movie itself, but about the situation in Iraq.” The doc’s called Soldiers Pay, and Warner decided not to include it on the DVD. “It was too political for them,” Russell said. “I asked a lot of questions about this war.” The filmmaker felt the documentary would “be useful to voters before the election,” but Warner pulled out saying it was “logistically impossible” to release it. The IFC Channel ended up airing the doc the night before the 2004 election.

13. David O. Russell had an ominous meeting with George W. Bush while editing the movie.

“This was before he’d even gotten the nomination,” Russell told The Believer. “He was at a gathering at the home of the Chairman of Warner Bros. I was invited and was introduced to him, and I told him that I was making a film that would question his father’s legacy in Iraq. At first, he looked at me like, ‘Who the f*ck is this guy?’ And then he went cowboy and said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just have to go back and finish the job, won’t I?’ That was in July of ’99. He was planning to invade Iraq long before he had any idea if he’d even get elected."

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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