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Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

by John Shaw

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61039-223-5
Publisher: PublicAffairs

The juxtaposition of two of America’s most enduring national anthems.

The beginning of this provocative history of Woody Guthrie’s persistent folk song and elementary school staple “This Land is Your Land” and Irving Berlin’s overly sentimental “God Bless America” is a visceral scene. Writes music and theater critic Shaw, “Woody Guthrie was worried he might freeze to death. Twenty-seven years old and almost completely unknown, he was hitchhiking to New York and had been stuck outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, standing for hours in a snowstorm, waiting for someone, anyone, to pick him up.” It’s also a supposition, one of many that the narrative is built around: “Some people say that it was when he was freezing on the side of the road that he started thinking about a rebuttal [to “God Bless America”], a song that would give vent to his leftist politics.” What people, exactly? From there, this is a by-the-books (lots of books, with little original research) retelling of a story most folk-music fans know already. Shaw tries hard to weave tenuous threads between Berlin, the wealthy, internationally famous songwriter, and Guthrie, the singer/songwriter with a chip on his shoulder and a bunch of Carter Family melodies in his head. Berlin’s story doesn’t resonate well here; even 40-something years gone, Guthrie casts a very long shadow. Shaw does unearth an interesting alternative version of “This Land is Your Land” from the Woody Guthrie Archives. Written in the 1950s, it loses much of its politics, substituting mystical imagery about fertility and joy. For readers who want to delve deeply into one of these two specific songs, this book is a pleasant, harmless diversion. More casual readers would be better served by Joe Klein’s 1980 biography or, better yet, Woody’s own 1943 story, Bound For Glory.

Shaw tries to pull off the same trick here as Alan Light did with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in The Holy or the Broken (2012), but there’s too little weight here to justify the act.