Woody Guthrie in New York City: The Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, and “This Land is Your Land”

The following is a post from Patrick G. Mackaronis. Patrick is the Director of Business Development for New York City-based social network Brabble. In this post, Patrick will tell us about the famous singer Woody Guthrie in NYC. Patrick can be best reached on Twitter at @patty__mack.

Woody Guthrie spent most of his life calling the open road his home. But there was a time where he traded the open road for the sidewalks of New York. It was in New York City that he wrote his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land.” Additionally, it was here that he met life long friend Pete Seeger, who would go on to carry folk music’s torch after Woody‘s illness and death.

Woody Guthrie Goes to New York

Disgruntled after being ousted from his radio show for his politics, Woody returned to Texas with his family. It was not long before his wanderlust got the better of him.

Woody soon went to New York City on invitation from his friend, actor and activist Will Greer. He quickly made a name for himself due to his wit and rural wisdom, a contrast to the city folk of the Big Apple.

In 1940, soon after coming to New York, Woody Guthrie made a series of recordings for pioneering folklorist, musicologist and radio host Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress. He also recorded his first album of original songs, Dust Bowl Ballads, for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records.

Woody Guthrie Joins the Almanac Singers

While in New York, Woody rubbed elbows with other folk singers such as Lead Belly, Burl Ives, Josh White, and a young musician name Pete Seeger. Guthrie and Seeger became close friends, and Guthrie joined Seeger’s newly formed group, the Almanac Singers.

 

The Almanac Singers were not so much of a cohesive group as much as a bunch of friends who would get together and perform. They had a rotating lineup around their core of Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and Pete Seeger.

The Almanac Singers envisioned their group as a singing newspaper, spreading news and opinion to the masses. They focused on topical songs, especially those having to do with leftist causes and union organizing. Guthrie penned many of the songs for the Almanac Singers, including noted songs such as “Union Maid” and “Hard, Ain’t it Hard.”

Woody Guthrie Writes “This Land is Your Land”

While living in New York, Woody Guthrie would go on to write his most famous songs, “This Land is Your Land.”

Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” as a musical response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” He disliked “God Bless America,” finding it complacent and not representative of America. He set out to write a song about the America that he knew.

Inspired by imagery from his rambles through the country, and cribbing the melody from the gospel song “Oh My Loving Brother,” Guthrie wrote the iconic song in early 1940. He first titled the song “God Blessed America for Me,” a direct reference to the Irving Berlin tune. In a final jab at Berlin, Guthrie signed his manuscript with the note “all you can write is what you see, Woody G.” Obviously, Guthrie and Berlin saw two very different Americas.

Woody Guthrie Leaves New York for California

Although Guthrie was successful in New York City, his wanderlust once again go the better of him. By the end of 1940, Woody was fed up with New York. He packed his family up, and headed to California. But Guthrie would soon return to the New York City folk scene, and would spent the bulk of his later years there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *