“This Land Is Your Land”

Woody Guthrie's Earth Day classic

“This Land is Your Land”: Planned Earth Day Music Stirs Memories 

Michael & Donna Fox. Photo by Tom Whelan.

This year Earth Day commemorations in Greenville on April 22 will take place at the Town Common, on the grassy banks of a river the familiar color of morning coffee with only a dab of cream. Take a photo of those muddy waters at the right time of day and they transform into a glassy Rorschach reflection, a mirror of the Carolina blue sky. Gathered on an oasis in the center of town, it’s easy to forget about the flanking asphalt and encroaching development. Add music to the mix and it’s a recipe for a symbiotic celebration of soil and sound: Bob Ross, meet Woody Guthrie.

Along with a number of planned activities and exhibitions from 11am-4pm Sylvia Bjorkman, political committee chair of the Cypress Group of the Sierra Club, said the music program will include the Greenville Choral Society’s Youth Chorale, The nu clear twins, the PCC Jazz Ensemble, and the St. James Jammers. Michael and Donna Fox are hosting a music jam tent all day and will join the other musicians on stage for the finale. They are bringing homemade and old time instruments including bass washtubs, washboards, dulcijos and others that the public can try and play along. The public is also welcome to bring their own non-amplified  instruments and play along. Sierra Club member Bill Redding will lead an all-star finale jam of “This Land is Your Land.”

Bill Redding

Redding remembers the song from a past performance: “I was playing and singing in a quintet called the Dustbowl Band for the ECU musical performance of The Grapes Of Wrath.  We did numerous Woody songs throughout the show and John Shearin, director, wanted to end with ‘This Land Is Your Land.’  He was appalled that many of the student cast members didn’t know the song.  He announced affirmatively, ‘You will all know it by heart by the first performance.’ The whole cast did know it and it was printed on the back of the program so the entire audience joined in.  It was magical and moving.”

Lightnin’ Wells shares some history of the song: “‘This Land Is Your Land’ was written by Woody Guthrie soon after he moved to New York City in 1940. He really disliked Irving Berlin’s song ‘God Bless America,’ which was heard everywhere that year as sung by Kate Smith, and he wrote this song [originally titled “God Blessed America”] as a response to it. He recorded it in 1944 with the three verses that are best known today. It didn’t originally make much of a splash but picked up steam over time as Pete Seeger sang it far and wide during his concerts and performances. By the late 1950s it had entered the public schools and was considered a patriotic song and I remember singing it during school functions as a child. I had the song in my repertoire during my early musical years and even performed it accompanying myself on the banjo for hundreds of Boy Scouts during the 100 mile Bath Pilgrimage.”

 In fact, a youthful Lightnin’ can be seen and heard singing the song in a 30-minute documentary WITN aired of the June 9, 1968 pilgrimage.

Tuscarora Council Boy Scout ribbon

An announcer proclaims at the beginning” “On June 9, 1968, some 1000 boy scouts and their leaders from the Tuscarora Council gathered at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base just outside of Goldsboro. Their mission: a 100 mile march for God and country to historic Bath, North Carolina, the site of the oldest church under the Tar Heel skies, the famed St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The weather was hot and muggy as crowds of friends, parents, and well-wishers gathered on this momentous occasion for a fond send-off. An Air Force band and strong voices, loud and clear, praised America, what it stands for, and what it means in a song familiar to all.”

The black and white footage looks as if it could have been used in an Andy Griffith episode for a Mayberry patriotic ceremony. 

John S. Peacock of Goldsboro was one of the thousand boys and still has his medal for completing the pilgrimage. “I have vivid memories of the trip, the locations of the rest stops and towns where we camped,” he says. “Our next to last night on the road was to be at the Voice Of America site. Unfortunately it had rained hard the day or two before and most of that area was under water. At the last minute they diverted us–1200 scouts and leaders–to Grimesland. We literally camped all over town. Our troop was assigned space on the school grounds, which proved much more convenient. I’ve often wondered how the townspeople felt being invaded by 1000+ teenagers with minimal supervision.”

Young Lightnin’ Wells

Wells sings and plays “This Land is Your Land” in what appears to be a pep rally, of sorts, the night before the troops would reach their destination. “During those years we always considered it an American patriotic song,” he says. “I heard rumors about the other verses during the 1970s and wrote them down after hearing them quoted by someone orally. Supposedly Woody taught his son Arlo these two verses when he first started playing so they would not be forgotten. The verses are critical of the U.S. for inequality and private property and reflect Woody’s own political views shaped by his experiences during the Depression dealing with the Oklahoma dust bowl and migration to California, which was also portrayed so well in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath. The two missing verses were not widely known until the last twenty years or so.”

There is a possibility the “missing verses” may make an appearance on April 22 at the Earth Day celebration.

The missing verses;

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said “Private Property.”
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
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.

Eugene Price, then editor of the Goldsboro News-Argus and Boy Scout leader at the time of the pilgrimage, says in the documentary, “I try to tell people how it was, walking that 100 miles to Bath, but the words never come. It’s not something you can say. It’s something you can feel, something you’ll always feel.”

And that feeling is very likely akin to the sentiment of sitting on the edge of the Tar River, shoulder to shoulder with people working to preserve the land and rivers we enjoy, while singing the song of shared responsibility: “This land is your land…this land is my land.”

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector April 15, 2023.

Tar River photo by Donna Davis