This Land is Our Land but the Song Isn’t

This week, a federal court judge ruled that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is private property. I have mixed feelings about keeping “This Land is Your Land” out of the public domain. Having the song remain the property of the Guthrie estate seems to go against the song’s essential meaning. But the Guthrie estate’s argument for retaining the rights is hard to argue with.

“This Land is Your Land” is unique among famous American patriotic songs. It’s aesthetically better, for one thing. Unlike bombastic, difficult to sing and impossible to enjoy seventh inning stretch mainstays like “The Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America,” “This Land is Your Land” is a modest and pretty folk tune that bounces up and down the major scale like a tug boat navigating gentle waves.

It’s also the only patriotic American song that argues for the abolition of private property. The message is overt but hidden in plain sight. Most people only know the song’s first verse. They don’t think about it too hard. It’s a song for little kids to sing at camp on the Fourth of July. They assume it’s about how America is wonderful and that Americans deserve this wonderful place. It’s rare that people encounter the fifth verse, where Guthrie clarifies that when he says the land is yours and mine, he’s talking about ownership.

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.

The next verse also argues for the morality of collectively owning America.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

With “This Land is Your Land” remaining privately owned, the Guthrie estate retains some control over the song’s use. The song can’t be broadcast in commercials or other media. As Guthrie’s daughter Nora persuasively argues, owning the song lets the family prevent the song from getting co-opted by objectionable forces—she said they’ve refused to let the NRA and Ronald Reagan use the song.

I certainly trust Nora Guthrie to make wise decisions about her father’s music, image and work. She’s led the Guthrie estate since 1992, honoring and expanding her father’s rich legacy through the Guthrie archives and a variety of publishing and music projects. She executive produced the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration Mermaid Avenue, for which I’ll be eternally grateful, for example. And as far as I know, there’s never been a Woody Guthrie song in a car commercial or a movie.

But the future is unpredictable. Nora has kids. So does her brother Arlo. Who knows what decisions they’d make about their grandfather’s music? Maybe they’d sell it to a hedge fund, Disney or Tesla when facing a medical crisis or something else equally devastating. No one could blame them. But it would be gutting to see “This Land” play over a Marvel movie or a political ad.