As a snow storm blanketed Pennsylvania, the 27-year-old balladeer Woody Guthrie stood unsheltered on a roadside alone, caught in winter’s fury. He was hungry, broke and thought he might well freeze to death before he would ever make it to New York City. A kindly forest ranger picked up the desperate hitchhiker, gave him hospitality for the night and helped to ensure that Guthrie would make it to the Big Apple. Woody had been invited to that metropolis by his good friend, the actor Will Geer who was then starring in a theatrical version of Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road.” He was sure that Guthrie and his music would impress many in “the leftist artists’ scene.” Geer was right.
In the course of Guthrie’s journey eastward from Texas, he heard over and over Irving Berlin’s rousing “God Bless America.” Originally written in 1918, Berlin rewrote it in 1938, when it was sung by Kate Smith. It was a ubiquitous staple playing on juke boxes and radios. Guthrie was infuriated by the piece. Its lyrics were a stirring paean to a sanitized America, which overlooked the bleak horrors and devastation that had been visited upon millions of citizens during the harrowing years of the Great Depression. He decided that he would compose his own anthem in response to Berlin’s. “This Land Is Your Land,” written in 1940, would portray America in a different light.
Guthrie and Berlin are the two iconic musicians whose lives and respective works pervade “This Land That I Love,” penned with erudition and affection by Seattle’s own John Shaw. An accomplished song writer and performer himself, Shaw resonates with his two legendary subjects as well as with a lively salmagundi of other composers, musicians, minstrels and personalities who populate his marvelous narrative. The result is a colorful cento of Americana chock-a-block with vibrant vignettes and fascinating pieces of little-known history.
There is the story of Francis Scott Key, who in 1814 wrote the “The Star Spangled Banner.” He was actually aboard an enemy British ship from which he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. As a lawyer, Key was attempting to obtain the release of a friend who was a captive of the Brits. When dawn broke, and it was obvious the Americans had withstood the attack, Key wrote his poem. Another choice factoid involves the fiddler Dan Emmett who wrote “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy. Emmett was a fervent opponent of the South’s rebellion and is supposed to have said, “If I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I will be damned if I’d have written it.”
Of Guthrie’s determination to compose his counter-anthem Shaw writes: “Some people say that it was when he was freezing on the side of the road that he started thinking about writing a rebuttal, a song that would give vent to his leftist politics.” Despite Guthrie’s countervailing perspective, he and Berlin actually had much more in common than would appear at first blush. Although he had already been a huge success by the time Guthrie was born, Berlin was no stranger to hard times and destitution. In Russia, his Jewish family had been victimized by hideous pogroms. He had known poverty and homelessness as a young immigrant in the United States. For Berlin, America was a genuine refuge that gave him the opportunity to achieve artistic greatness. His stirring anthem is his heartfelt thank you.
In 1931 the United States adopted “The Star Spangled Banner” as the nation’s official anthem. The tune was taken from a song popular in the latter part of the 18th century entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet who waxed rhapsodic about love, wine and good times. It was the song of an English gentlemen’s club, the Anacreontic Society of London, and booze and debauchery were the themes. The voice of Anacreon sings: “And besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to entwine/The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.”
Other American anthems have emerged throughout our history and have been sung at ceremonies and celebrations: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” “Hail Columbia” and the African-American anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Shaw notes that they “reflect the shifts in our vision and values over time as our history has confronted us with ever-changing circumstances. All are fascinating songs with their own unlikely histories, their own surprising stories to tell.”
Irving Berlin’s career was remarkable. He was 101 years of age when he died in 1989. Of his voluminous musical oeuvre many are classic American standards. “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” was his first big hit in 1911. Songs like “Putting on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “White Christmas” are known to just about every American.
Guthrie would precede Berlin in death by almost 22 years. By the mid 1950s he was incapacitated by Huntington’s disease. His son Arlo reflected on the irony of his father’s big success coming when he could not react in any way due to his physical impairment: “He’s sitting there in a mental hospital, and he knows what’s going on, and he can’t say anything or tell anyone how he feels. It’s Shakespearean.” Woody Guthrie died in 1967 at 55.
“This Land That I Love” is a fine work written in an easygoing and appealing style. Shaw takes the reader on an exhilarating tour of the rich and multifaceted legacy of American song. It is sure to appeal to all who love good music and lively well crafted history.