June 20, 2016

Woody would’ve wanted it this way, or, this song is whose song?


Woody Guthrie, 1943. Via Wikimedia.

Woody Guthrie, 1943. Via Wikimedia.

Some have called Woody Guthrie’s classic 1940 song This Land is Your Land America’s alternative national anthem—but that doesn’t make it public property.

In fact, the rights to the This Land is Your Land are held by Ludlow Music (a subsidiary of the Richmond Organization), which charges a licensing fee for use of the song. But last Tuesday, according to Niraj Chokshi at the New York Times, the New York law firm of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of parties who had paid for use of the song, which the suit alleges belongs in the public domain. The firm had initially been approached by Satorii, a Brooklyn band that has recorded two versions of the song.

Uncovered drafts have shown that Guthrie initially intended the song at least partly as an assault on private property, including a verse that runs:

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.

(These lyrics, while included in some renditions of the song—like the highly recommended one by soul revival stalwarts Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—do not actually appear in the published version, and so are not part of the lawsuit.)

The songwriter’s own sentiments notwithstanding, Wolf Haldenstein lawyer Mark Rifkin offered a comment only slightly more tempered: “Somewhere along the way we got sidetracked by giving corporations the right to own copyrights and to profit from them long after the creators of the work have died and long after anyone else has an interest in protecting the work.”

The same law firm also prevailed recently in their bid to wrest Happy Birthday (I mean the real Happy Birthday, not that awful Beatles song—that one will never be free as a bird) from the clutches of the Warner Music Group and into the public domain.

Speaking of Woody Guthrie’s mistrust of high walls, the troubadour also wrote a whole song about his intense dislike for Fred C. Trump, aka The Donald, père. Not too much appears to have changed in the Trump dynasty, except, of course, that the wall has gotten higher.

Luckily, the Guthries are a dynasty, too:




Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.