John Shaw opens "This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie and the Story of Two American Anthems" with the image of Woody Guthrie, standing in a snowstorm in Harrisburg in February 1940, trying to hitch to New York City, hoping for a change of fortune.
The scene cuts to former homeless street urchin Irving Berlin, already a millionaire and legendary hit-maker. Mr. Shaw cuts again to a rundown of the parallels between the two men, their careers, influences, lives and legacies. A couple of hundred pages later, he closes, "A book is finite. Music is boundless."
Along the way, Mr. Shaw seems intent on proving the belief that from a single blade of grass, one can know the entire universe. He visits Daddy Rice and the Virginia Minstrels, Dan Emmett, Stephen Foster, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Lomax, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, George M. Cohan, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, radio, television, Joe Hill, Alan Lomax, picket lines, merchant ships, the Chicago World's Fair, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, the United Front, war, postwar prosperity and the Civil Rights Movement. The whole thing is rather dizzying.
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Each name on the list is worthy of a book of its own. How to say what needs to be said and do justice to it all? If Mr. Shaw doesn't explicitly come out and say it, I will: You can learn more about a people from their songs than from their newspapers. Mr. Shaw points to keystones of American history and culture often whitewashed or deliberately overlooked like the enduring legacy of blackface minstrelsy and "coon" songs. (People did this? People embraced this? People actually lamented its passing? I hereby resign from the human race!)
Conversely, Mr. Shaw blows the cover of some of the oh-so-sincere and heart-rending voices of the organic American workingman. Were they really leftist party-liners and propagandists? "Comrade, Can You Spare a Dime?" has an awkward syntax, don't you think? But the line, appearing in a collection of so-called "workers' songs" from 1935, may have been written by Charles Seeger, the father of Pete Seeger.
Mr. Shaw unearths a number of significant details in the creative process and growing pains that led to the finished versions of Guthrie and Berlin's respective anthems. Each underwent several revisions as the target audience and political climate shifted. "God Bless America," for example, was broadcast to America on the eve of Armistice Day in 1938 by the voice of Kate Smith. Shaw located Irving Berlin's original lead sheet in the Library of Congress, and it dates all the way back to 1918.
As for Guthrie, Mr. Shaw goes so far as to suggest that some of the later revisions to "This Land Is Your Land" show the handiwork of someone other than Guthrie himself.
Mr. Shaw also reveals a painful truth that will gall editors and English teachers (but was intuitively understood by folks like Jack Kerouac). The first draft of "This Land Is Your Land," handwritten on Feb. 23, 1940, and originally titled "God Blessed America," is the best version. For all the tinkering and fine-tuning, the first idea was the best idea. Makes you wonder if the same can't be said of America itself.
Robert A. Wagner is a musician and writer (firstname.lastname@example.org).