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January 28, 2013

Woody Guthrie captured the mood of Great Depression America in his songs. Now, 46 years after his death, another legacy of the troubadour of the poor is about to surface thanks to a new publishing company set up by Johnny Depp.

IN FEBRUARY 1940, a gay Communist actor called Will Geer – you might know him as Grandpa Walton – got in touch with Woody Guthrie and invited him to New York. As Guthrie hitched north, Irving Berlin’s God Bless America seemed to be playing on every radio. He loathed the song.

As soon as he booked into a two-bit hotel on the corner of 43rd and 6th street – now, ironically, the headquarters of the Bank of New York – he started thinking back on the journey there from the Midwest. In his mind, he went further back too. To the trains he had ridden on three years earlier, when he left the Texas Panhandle in search of the better life in California. To the hundreds of thousands of poor farmers who had made that same journey, fleeing their dustbowl-ravaged land in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

If there was to be an anthem about America, Guthrie resolved, it wouldn’t be as anodyne as God Bless America. It would be radical, socialist even. It would highlight the division between the propertied rich and the poor waiting in line for welfare. God wouldn’t come into it, but the people would. “This land is your land,” it would begin.

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