Woody Guthrie and Irving Berlin considered in This Land That I Love by John Shaw.

When Irving Berlin Pissed Off Woody Guthrie

When Irving Berlin Pissed Off Woody Guthrie

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 6 2013 9:09 AM

God Blessed America

What happened when Irving Berlin pissed off Woody Guthrie.

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And Shaw adds to the conversation in all sorts of helpful ways. He is particularly good at nailing down the melodic ancestors for these Great American Anthems and for tracing the various revisions Berlin and Guthrie made to their songs along the way. Shaw, citing Rosen, notes that Berlin found a tune for his opening line by recycling a bit of melody from a Jew-mocking 1906 vaudeville novelty “When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band.” And the song’s final line, “my home sweet home,” Shaw points out, is sung to the melody of a parlor song favorite with that phrase as its title. He explains how Berlin’s anthem borrows melodic features from a one-time Russian anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” itself inspired by the success of Britain’s “God Save the King.” Consciously or not, Berlin the immigrant wrote an anthem that exemplifies assimilation: Old World roots are joined to a quintessential New World parlor song and to a so-called “Hebe” number—absorbed and appropriated, then reinvented and repurposed—and it all adds up to … American.

Author John Shaw

Courtesy of Jeff Shaw

Likewise, Shaw walks us through the many changes Guthrie made to “This Land Is Your Land,” outlining the significant additions and subtle alterations he made to the song over the years. To the Carter Family’s melody—which they’d borrowed from the African-American gospel song “Rock of Ages”—Guthrie added allusions to Josh White’s and Langston Hughes’ “Freedom Road.” Over time he added whole new verses, one about a “relief office” that has Guthrie “wondering if this land was made for you and me,” and another, most famously, about “private property.” Traveling across our land, Guthrie sings of coming to a sign that tells him to keep out. “But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing,” Guthrie winks. “This land was made for you and me.” Guthrie’s anthem has something quite different to say regarding assimilation. It adds up to … American, yes, but not fully, not yet.

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At times, This Land That I Love piles up insights so quickly it can be frustrating—they fly by in a blink. About the Carter Family, for example, Shaw writes: “Maybelle’s guitar pushed the rhythm, dropping the accents a hair’s breadth before the beats, creating a sense of urgency about life against which a singer’s stoicism had meaning.” That nails the sound and sense of the Carter Family’s music, how it works, better than anything I’ve read. But instead of spending another few hundred words on the point, teasing out tensions and providing examples, Shaw bolts to something else.

Much earlier, he writes:

Parlor songs have never gone out of fashion, outlasting the fads for new dance rhythms that have continually supplanted each other the last 150 years in an unbroken chain, from the waltz and the polka to hip-hop dancing.

That sentence reads like an abstract for a whole other book I’d rush to read. And ditto for Shaw’s thumbnail take, late in this volume, on why Berlin and Guthrie’s dueling anthems remain truly national, all these years later, and why nothing has yet emerged to replace them:

Berlin and Guthrie shared a midcentury balance of confidence without machismo, a stoicism born of deprivation, a toughness born of struggle, a steadiness that neither sought nor feared difficulty, tempered with a hope and optimism born of having survived hard time. Our patriotic songwriters who have followed them haven’t had that mix.

Then, almost before you have time to think, Wow, that’s really interesting, he’s off talking about a post-9/11 version of “God Bless America” by Celine Dion, “a latter-day Kate Smith, hugely popular, powerfully piped, mostly disliked by critics.”

Perhaps Shaw’s way of pinballing from here to there and back again is a weakness of his work—but more often than not, I experienced it as an approach in step with his subject. Just watch him bounce from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the “Negro National Hymn” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” or from Frederick Douglas to Buffalo Bill to Marian Anderson to Louis Armstrong, or from Jim Crow to “I Have a Dream” to Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger performing at the inauguration of Barack Obama. It’s an epic itinerary, and there’s a cast of thousands. Just as Berlin’s “God Bless America” journeys in a single line “from the mountains to the prairies” and Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” hikes with equal speed “from California to the New York island,” This Land That I Love traverses, in a relatively small number of pages, the whole canvas of America.

Correction, Dec. 10, 2013: This article originally omitted the word Me from the song title “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”