Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger: “This Land Is Your Land”

By: Joanna Smolko (Athens, Georgia) //

On January 18, 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang together at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied by Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodríquez-Seeger and a choir. Seeger invited the crowd to sing along, reflecting his lifelong commitment to group singing; even in staid places like Carnegie Hall, his concerts were less about performing than about community music making. The song they chose was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song much-beloved by both musicians. As they prepared for the event, Springsteen asked Seeger on how he wanted to perform the song. Seeger replied, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote. Especially the two that get left out: about private property and the relief office.” After Seeger’s death in 2014, Springsteen memorialized this moment: “And I thought, of course, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends.” 

Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Tao Rodríquez-Seeger, and choir singing “This Land Is Your Land” at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration (2009). Springsteen draws attention to Seeger, and Seeger sings in a call-and-response fashion, inviting the crowd to sing, speaking out the words between verses as they sing along with other musicians and a choir.

This moment can be read as a baton-passing event from Seeger to Springsteen as a keeper of American songs. Modeling his work on Seeger as an activist, archivist, and adapter of songs, Springsteen reworks traditional songs and, like Seeger, adapts the texts to comment on current events, using music as political action. The intermediary between Springsteen and Seeger is Woody Guthrie. Long before Springsteen immersed himself in Seeger’s work, he found Guthrie’s music.

“This Land” haunted Springsteen. During his The River tour of 1980–81, he performed it at over 80 concerts. He sometimes incorporated a new verse commenting on present-day crises, beginning, “Now they’re dying on the streets of New York and in Liberty City,” the latter an oblique reference to 1980 riots in Miami neighborhoods over police violence. He continued to perform the song in his Born in the U.S.A. tour of 1984–85. Decades later, he returned to the song, frequently performing it on Barack Obama’s campaign trail in 2008 and 2012. In this 2008 performance at Eastern Michigan University, he recites “Yes, we can” over the intro and outro, binding the hopefulness of Obama’s campaign slogan to the song.

Bruce Springsteen, “This Land Is Your Land,” Barack Obama campaign trail, October 6, 2008. While Springsteen sings an energetic solo version of the song at the rally, the video cuts backstage to show Barack and Michelle Obama as they talk to their children about the importance of “This Land Is Your Land.”

It was in the gap between his burgeoning awareness of social justice in the late 1980s and his more overt political statements of the 2000s that Springsteen encountered the work of Seeger. Springsteen was commissioned by Appleseed Recordings to record the song “We Shall Overcome” for a tribute album to Seeger titled Where Have All the Flowers Gone (1998). This inspired him to explore Seeger’s work and led him to create a tribute album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). As he explained in an interview with NPR, he listened extensively to Seeger’s recordings; according to Springsteen’s biographer Dave Marsh, however, he resisted finding other covers of the songs, wishing to approach the songs with a fresh voice. 

The Seeger Sessions reflects Seeger’s influence in crucial ways. The album includes Springsteen’s cover of one of Seeger’s own songs (“Bring ‘Em Home”), a collaboration with Seeger (“We Shall Overcome”), and additional folk songs that Seeger frequently performed (such as “John Henry”). Further, Springsteen mirrored Seeger’s processes of adapting songs to comment on contemporary situations; for example, he re-wrote the verses of “Blind” Alfred Reed’s “How Shall a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” (1929) to comment on the tragic events in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.

The songs on The Seeger Sessions feature a large group of instruments, mostly acoustic, as well as back-up vocalists. Springsteen states on the album’s documentary—Bruce Springsteen: The Seeger Sessions—that his goal was to capture a spontaneous kind of sound. This improvisatory sound, echoing Seeger’s own emphasis on improvisation and participation, was crucial to the ethos of the album. As Springsteen states in the documentary, “You get the sound of not just music being played, but music being made. There’s something to that. An energy to it. When you’re fumbling around, that’s where opportunity and disaster are close at hand.” In live performances of the songs, Springsteen (as Seeger before him) invites the crowd to sing along. In both these instances, Springsteen plays with the lines between “opportunity and disaster,” allowing spontaneity to shape his usually carefully planned and executed approach to the recording and performance process.

Excerpt from Bruce Springsteen: The Seeger Sessions documentary showing a jam session with musicians followed by Springsteen discussing his aesthetic choices for the album, particularly the way it embodies the improvisatory practices of folk music.

Strangely enough, given his long history with the song, “This Land” was not part of the set list for We Shall Overcome. Nevertheless, the album reflects Springsteen’s assimilation of Seeger’s approach to traditional American music, providing the backdrop for understanding their desire to sing the “lost” verses together. These verses are the penultimate verses in the version found here, or verses four and six in the original manuscript. In contrast to the optimistic perspective of the other verses, the traveler observes the fissures in the American land—private property and the exclusion it represents in verse five, and the inequity and suffering of American people in verse six. The vivid imagery of hungry people waiting in relief lines recall the Depression-era photographs of soup kitchens and breadlines. Guthrie’s daughter Nora commented that the omission of these verses in Guthrie’s own and other early recordings of this song was probably related to the culture of fear in the McCarthy era of censorship. The 1958 cover by the Weavers (including Pete Seeger), for example, took place after their blacklisting in 1952 and included only three of the verses. Seeger, however, frequently sang the verses in live performances.

In his first performances of the song in 1980, Springsteen omitted the provocative verses. In 1985, however, he incorporated the verse on hunger and the relief office into his live performances. In a spoken introduction to the song, he calls it “about the greatest song about America” and continues by reflecting on the loss of jobs in the mid-80s economy. He concludes that, “With countries, just like with people, it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.”

Bruce Springsteen live performance of “This Land Is Your Land,” with commentary, Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA on September 30, 1985

With their shared performance at the inauguration, Seeger and Springsteen merged together their commitment to social justice with “This Land” in a moment of profound national hopefulness surrounding the election of America’s first African-American president. In the work of Seeger and Springsteen (and Guthrie!) we see a blend of realism, optimism, and ecumenicalism, combined with a belief in the power of song to bring people together and to effect social change.

For Discussion

Contemporary protests employ “This Land Is Your Land” for a myriad of issues from fracking to land battles to political campaigns. Use YouTube to find two of these events to compare and contrast. What verses are used? How does the song relate to the issues at hand? Are there new verses composed?

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