Hello there! This week our blog features a folk anthem, This Land Is Your Land. We will first discuss predecessors to this melody from Blind Willie Davis and The Carter Family. Next, we will review Woody Guthrie’s timeless tune, and finally we present a cover by Peter, Paul & Mary.
Blind Willie Davis and Rock of Ages:
Blind Willie Davis was a southern gospel singer. Aside from the fact that he was blind, very little is known about him. He was born sometime around 1890 and died in the 1930s. Not only is there no video of Blind Willie Davis performing, but there are no known photographs of him.
The best guess from historians is that he lived in Bude, Mississippi, a town in the southwest corner of that state. He sang gospel songs in a blues format, backed by his slide guitar. The best-known songs that he performed are Rock of Ages, When The Saints Go Marching In, and Keys to the Kingdom.
In 1928 and 1929, Willie Davis recorded six sides of songs for Paramount Records.
Here is audio of Willie Davis singing Rock of Ages, a song released in 1928. As you will see, the melodies of When The World’s On Fire, and later This Land Is Your Land, have very strong similarities to Willie Davis’ tune (thanks to Glenn Gass for pointing this out).
Apart from the chorus, it is believed that Willie Davis improvised his lyrics. As you can hear, Davis’ lyrics are quite repetitive. His guitar playing is powerful and up-tempo, although like his lyrics the guitar riffs repeat themselves.
After his two recording sessions, Willie Davis did not record again. It was rumored that he feared if he sat through more recording sessions, he would be required to perform secular songs.
You can find the complete works of Blind Willie Davis on Document Records. We are fortunate to have a permanent record of the work of this simple but powerful gospel singer.
The Carter Family and When The World’s On Fire:
The Carter Family became America’s First Family of country music. Initially, the head of the family, Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter (1891-1960), joined with his wife Sara Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter to form a family trio. Below is a photo of the Carter Family. From L: Maybelle Carter; A.P. Carter; Sara Carter.Embed from Getty Images
The Carters lived in extreme southwest Virginia, right at the point where Virginia adjoins Kentucky and Tennessee. A.P. Carter was a traveling salesman, and as he moved through his territory, he collected traditional folk and gospel songs in Appalachia. The music featured tight harmonies and shape note singing, from tunes that had been passed around by generations of folk living in isolated valleys in this region. In addition, A.P. composed several songs of his own.
The Carter Family got their big break in August, 1927, when A.P., Sara and Maybelle travelled to Bristol, Tennessee to audition with producer Ralph Peer. Peer was a trailblazer who utilized “field recording,”
when in June 1923 he took remote recording equipment south to Atlanta, Georgia to record regional music outside the recording studio in such places as hotel rooms, ballrooms, or empty warehouses.
Peer’s mobile recording studio had already produced the first blues recording aimed at the African-American market in 1923. The following year Peer oversaw the first commercial recording session in New Orleans, where he recorded blues, jazz and gospel groups.
In 1927 Peer repeated his success with hillbilly music. At what are now called the “Bristol sessions,” Peer recorded both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers, two of the most important and influential country music artists.
Peer also invented the “royalty system.” In lieu of a raise, Peer was paid one penny for every side of a record that he produced. Peer kept half of this royalty, and shared the other half with the composer. These transactions made a fortune for Ralph Peer, but they also provided a powerful incentive for regional music groups.
After being recorded by Ralph Peer, the Carter Family became nationally famous for their brand of country music. A.P. typically sang backup, while his wife Sara on autoharp and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter on guitar often sang the lead parts.
Maybelle’s guitar style ushered in a major change in country music. She single-handedly invented what became the dominant style of bluegrass guitar picking. Maybelle used her thumb (with a thumbpick) and two fingers
to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings.
This blazed a trail in country music, where beforehand the guitar was used only infrequently as a solo instrument. An entire guitar-picking industry was inspired by Mother Maybelle’s style.
Here is a clip, a tribute to Mother Maybelle, that focuses on her guitar technique. I like it because it shows off her trademark picking style to great advantage.
A.P. Carter made another major contribution, from his drive to collect and publish songs from all over the Appalachian region; indeed, between 1927 and 1941 the Carter Family recorded an astonishing 300 songs. This included gospel and traditional folk tunes, in addition to A.P.’s original songs.
Attracted by the half-penny royalty, A.P. Carter copyrighted all these songs in his own name. As a result, the Carter Family “owned” the rights to an entire catalog of traditional music. They were responsible for such iconic bluegrass songs as Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Wildwood Flower and Wabash Cannonball.
Here is audio of the Carter Family singing When The World’s On Fire.
This was a 1930 recording. As you can see, both the melody and many of the lyrics are identical to Blind Willie Davis’ Rock of Ages. Folk-song aficionados will also recognize the melody from another Carter tune — Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine.
In the late 30s the Carter family moved to Texas and began broadcasting radio shows there. In 1942 they moved their operation to Charlotte, NC where they produced a twice-daily show.
A.P. and Sara Carter separated in 1932 and divorced in 1939, but they continued to perform together for several progressively more uncomfortable years. Finally, the group split up in 1944. At that time, A.P. left the music business and opened a general store in Hiltons, VA.
But Mother Maybelle continued on. She assembled her daughters and the children of A.P. and Sara, and traveled the country as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. June Carter subsequently married Johnny Cash, and descendants of the Carter family such as grand-daughters Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash are still performing country music today.
The Carter clan are rightly known as the First Family of country music. Their influence on song collecting, song-writing, and musical style has set the standard for country music for nearly 100 years. Hats off to them!
Woody Guthrie and This Land Is Your Land:
Woody Guthrie was one of the greatest American folk singers, and was dedicated to fighting for social justice through his songs and writing. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. Woody’s mother suffered from the hereditary affliction Huntington’s disease. However, it was never properly diagnosed during her lifetime, and she spent her last four years at the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane.
Woody’s family left the Oklahoma Dust Bowl for California, where Woody befriended a number of socialists and Communists, including John Steinbeck. In California, Woody performed folk and country songs and also wrote a column called Woody Sez for the Communist newspaper People’s World.
Although Woody Guthrie was friends with many Communists, there is no evidence that he ever joined the Communist Party; he acted more as a ‘fellow traveler.’ Woody moved to New York City in 1940. His album Dust Bowl Ballads recounted his boyhood days in Oklahoma; eventually, that album greatly increased his reputation as a singer-songwriter. Below is a photo of Woody Guthrie.
In February 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote down lyrics for a song called God Blessed America. It was written in protest of Irving Berlin’s song God Bless America, which Woody thought was too uncritical and complacent in its attitude towards the U.S. (also, he was tired of hearing Kate Smith singing it).
Woody jotted down lyrics for the song in New York’s Hanover House Hotel. The first verse is shown here, together with words stricken from his original notes.
This land is your land, and this land is my land
From California to the
Staten New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
As you can see, Woody decided to change the title to This Land Was Made for You and Me. He then put the song aside for four years, when he returned with an updated set of lyrics. He wanted to emphasize his conviction that America should be a resource for everyone.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
Woody dropped two verses from his original; those were more political and dealt with private property and poverty. One of those verses was the following:
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
So here is a video of Woody Guthrie and the song This Land Is Your Land.
That is certainly Woody’s voice, and the video clips are authentic, but I can’t tell whether Woody is singing This Land Is Your Land in this video.
Over the years this song has become an anthem for progressive causes. The song gained particular resonance during the civil-rights era, and the rise of the folk-singing movement in the 60s. It was even adopted by a right-wing group (the National Organization for Marriage, which crusaded against gay marriage, adoption of children by gays, and transgender rights).
The song was performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger at the Obama Inaugural gala at the Lincoln Memorial in January, 2009. Covers of this song have been made by over 150 artists, and the lyrics have been transcribed to fit other countries, including Canada, Ireland, Turkey and Scotland.
Hilariously enough, a song that ridicules “private property” became the object of a lawsuit over copyright. When the Website Jibjab issued a parody of This Land Is Your Land in 2004, Ludlow Publishing Company threatened legal action, claiming that they held the copyright to that song. Eventually Ludlow was persuaded that their copyright had expired.
In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger formed a folk group, the Almanac Singers. Woody lent “authenticity” to the group’s social-justice efforts, as he was a legitimate member of the working class, rather than an intellectual. Woody’s songs such as This Land Is Your Land, coupled with pro-union efforts like Union Maid, made him a hero to social-justice advocates in the U.S. and abroad.
During World War II, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Woody Guthrie wrote a number of anti-Fascist songs. Woody also collaborated with American unions on anti-Nazi activity; in fact, he was able to get the warring AFL and CIO factions to unite for this cause. At this time Woody became famous for the sign “this machine kills Fascists” taped to his guitar (shown in the photo above).
However, in the late 40s Woody Guthrie’s health began to suffer. His behavior changed dramatically, and he became aggressive and emotionally volatile. Eventually he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which he had inherited from his mother.
Unfortunately, as little was known about this progressive disease at the time, Woody’s condition went essentially untreated. As his muscular control worsened, Woody was sent to several psychiatric hospitals for care.
Before he died in 1967 from complications of Huntington’s disease, Woody Guthrie became a hero to a new generation of folksingers. This was particularly true of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had been mentored by Guthrie.
Elliott reported that Woody’s advice for a folk musician was “If you want to learn something, just steal it.” This was consistent with a statement Woody made regarding music publishing rights.
“This song is Copyrighted … and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern [sic]. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it.”
Bob Dylan revered Woody Guthrie; when he arrived in New York in 1061, Dylan visited Woody frequently while Guthrie was confined at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.
We salute the folk idol and tireless social-justice advocate Woody Guthrie.
Peter, Paul & Mary and This Land Is Your Land:
Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were folksingers in New York City in the late 1950s, and Noel Stookey was an aspiring stand-up comedian who had arrived in the Big Apple from the Midwest. The legendary manager Albert Grossman auditioned several musicians for the purpose of assembling a folk-singing group.
Grossman hand-picked these three, told Noel Stookey to change his name to Paul, and rehearsed the group for several months in Boston and Miami. Following their rehearsals, he took the group back to Greenwich Village and checked them into the Bitter End coffee house.
Below is a photo of Peter, Paul and Mary, appearing at an event for Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968.Embed from Getty Images
The group released their debut album in 1963, and it immediately became a commercial bombshell. The album, packed with hit singles such as If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, shot up to #1 on the Billboard album list, remained in the top 10 for ten months, and eventually was certified double platinum.
I remember vividly first hearing their album and subsequently seeing them perform. Their music was compelling, with their pleasing harmonies complemented by Yarrow and Stookey’s guitars and an upright bass. Visually they were also striking, with Yarrow and Stookey’s dark-haired beatnik visages offset by Travers’ platinum-blond hair, square chin and stunning good looks.
Although the trio had been “manufactured” by Albert Grossman, they quite genuinely adopted their role in the folk-protest movement. Their first major activist performance was at the August 1963 March on Washington best known for Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. There they sang If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind.
This was followed by fifty years of performing and social activism. The trio broke up in 1970 but reunited in 1978. They then continued to perform together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009 from leukemia. I saw the group a couple of times in the mid-60s and once much later on. It was always a joy to hear their signature renditions of folk song classics. In addition, the trio appeared to have genuine affection for one another.
In November 1969 I took part in the march on Washington, DC against the Vietnam War, along with roughly a million of my close friends (desperate to disparage the anti-war movement, the Nixon administration estimated the crowd at 100,000). Peter, Paul & Mary performed there; my recollection is that they sang If I Had a Hammer and possibly also This Land Is Your Land. Peter Yarrow was one of the organizers of that event, whose performers included Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra who played a Beethoven quartet, and the cast of Hair.
Here are Peter, Paul & Mary and the audio of This Land Is Your Land. This is from their second album Moving. Released in 1963, it made it up to #2 on the Billboard album charts, buoyed by the gigantic single hit Puff, The Magic Dragon.
Well, this is a rousing version of the Woody Guthrie classic. Peter, Paul & Mary provide their signature close harmonies (here in a remastered version of the original). It is an up-tempo version of Woody’s own song. I like it – it makes you want to rush out and join a protest!
And here is a live version of the song by Peter, Paul & Mary.
This is from their live 25th anniversary concert in 1986. Peter, Paul & Mary are significantly older than when they started out, but they provide an enjoyable rendition of this classic. Peter Yarrow starts out with a slight and vulnerable solo, and then he is joined by Noel/Paul and Mary. The audience clearly loves it.
Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey have continued to perform on occasion following Mary Travers’ death. I continue to listen to my old PP&M albums with great affection. They bring me straight back to the 60s.