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Roll On Columbia, Roll On… “Don’t talk, just sing, Woody”

Turns out that “rabble-rouser” Woody Gutherie was hired for a one-month temporary gig to to visit the Columbia River area and write songs that “raised the standard of living” of the people in the area. This was during the WPA and was funded directly by the BPA (Bonneville Power Administration).

Prior to his meeting for the gig, he was advised “don’t talk, just sing” so that he didn’t get carried away sharing his opinions and “expose the inequities of the Capitalist system”! He got the job (despite his politics!) and managed to insert some of those opinions into his lyrics anyway.

Roll on Columbia, Roll On

Uncovering this fascinating history led us to look up his more well known song, This Land.

From Wikipedia:

Following are the original lyrics as composed on February 23, 1940, in Guthrie’s room at the Hanover House hotel at 43rd St. and 6th Ave. (101 West 43rd St.) in New York, showing his strikeouts. The line “This land was made for you and me” does not literally appear in the manuscript at the end of each verse, but is implied by Guthrie’s writing of those words at the top of the page and by his subsequent singing of the line with those words.

The original title was “God Blessed America”, but it was struck out and replaced by “This Land Was Made For You & Me“. It appears therefore that the original 1940 title was “This Land”.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the 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 I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
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 —
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

According to Joe Klein,[7] after Guthrie composed it “he completely forgot about the song, and didn’t do anything with it for another five years.” (Since there is a March, 1944, recording of the song, Klein should have said “four years”.)

Original 1944 lyrics

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.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.
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.

Note that this version drops the two political verses from the original: Verse four, about private property, and verse six, about hunger.

Confirmation of two other verses

A March 1944 recording in the possession of the Smithsonian, the earliest known recording of the song, has the “private property” verse included. This version was recorded the same day as 75 other songs. This was confirmed by several archivists for Smithsonian who were interviewed as part of the History Channel program Save Our History – Save our Sounds. The 1944 recording with this fourth verse can be found on Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Volume 1, where it is track 14.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
[8]

Woody Guthrie has a variant:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

It also has a verse:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?