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The Story of How Woody Occupied Berlin

by Mike Keeler

It all started in 1893, when Isadore Baline arrived in the United States from Russia. He worked as a singing waiter in New York, until World War 1, when he enlisted in the army. While stationed at Camp Upton, he staged a musical review for the troops that included several upbeat, patriotic tunes. After the war, as he was becoming a famous songwriter, his music publisher misprinted his name “Irving Berlin,” and it stuck. In 1938, with war threatening again in Europe, he was asked by Kate Smith to write her a song to perform at the World’s Fair. Berlin pulled out one of his Camp Upton tunes, and reworked the lyrics. On November 10, 1938, Kate Smith stepped up to the microphone and, for the first time, performed “God Bless America.” Everybody loved it.

Well, almost everybody. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Texas in 1912, and spent his youth as a traveling folk singer in the dust bowl of the Great Depression. When he heard Berlin’s song, he thought it was simplistic and jingoistic, and insensitive to the suffering of everyday folks. He asked himself, “In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple; by the relief office, I’d seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking: is this land made for you and me?” Over the next 2 years, he developed his idea into a 6-verse populist manifesto. In 1940, Woody Guthrie stepped up to the microphone at a benefit for poor farm workers, and performed, “This Land is Your Land.” Not everyone was pleased; he was branded a communist.

Since that time, Berlin’s sunny song-and-dance and Guthrie’s social criticism have been woven like competing threads through the fabric of American music. The optimistic, prosperous 50’s were filled with colorful Berlin-inspired Broadway musicals; the rock and roll era was defined by the gritty commentary of “Woody’s Children,” from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Billy Bragg.

Then, when America was attacked in 2001, the two songs were brought together again. On the afternoon of 9/11, Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol, while in schools and parks across the country, folks sang “This Land is Your Land.” And just a year later, when the Library of Congress established the National Recording Registry, the two songs were inducted together in the very first class of recordings.

Irving Berlin was a founding member of ASCAP and a consummate music industry titan. He lived a long and prosperous life and died in 1989, after donating the royalties of his song to the Boy Scouts. Woody Guthrie worked the back roads and died much younger – in 1967 from complications of Huntington’s Disease – never knowing how influential he would become. But you probably heard ssomething of his legacy last weekend on rock and folk radio stations across the country; July 14th marked his 100th birthday.

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