I don't mind the British drinking song to which Francis Scott Key set lyrics, giving us "The Star-Spangled Banner." I can enjoy the purple-mountained majesty of "America the Beautiful" and the humble prayer of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (though that's set to another British song) and even the grandiose self-approval of "God Bless America."
But for my money, the truest anthem about America was written by the Oklahoman whose 100th birthday will be celebrated on Saturday.
"This Land Is Your Land" doesn't honor battles or conquests. It doesn't talk about how perfect America is -- rather the reverse, in its full-length version -- or how the Lord singled us out for special attention, though Guthrie apparently considered using the line "God blessed America for me" to end each verse. (He wisely opted for the egalitarian "This land was made for you and me.")
The song is quintessentially American: The narrator is a wanderer who (like Guthrie) "roamed and rambled and followed (his) footsteps," acting out the U.S. dream of eternal mobility. "This Land" praises our natural wonders and may even give God a look-in, as the unspecified voice "all around me" sounding the title of the song. Most importantly, it says the country belongs to you and me.
Pete Seeger sang it at Barack Obama's inauguration to indicate that power had been given to the people. But Americans of all political persuasions have used it for different reasons. I wouldn't be surprised to hear conservatives sing it in protest, because they believe the federal government has taken too much authority on itself, or liberals sing it as a warning that Mitt Romney would create a government of wealthy oligarchs.
So why won't this song ever become the national anthem? First, nobody cares enough to jettison "The Star-Spangled Banner," which most of us can't sing but which has tradition on its side.
Second, the unexpurgated "This Land" has verses that question whether Americans really take care of each other in times of need, and we can't have doubt in an anthem. Of course, that's not in the four verses most of us know, and we could simply leave off the controversial part. After all, we sing only 25 percent of the current national anthem. (Yes, the lyrics -- a poem titled "Defense of Fort McHenry" -- run to four repetitive, uninspired verses.)
Third, Woody Guthrie leaned far to the left, though he may not officially have joined any Communist groups. He believed in a kind of rough, unofficial socialism, which he picked up while crossing America during The Depression and seeing vast differences in the ways people lived.
That's why he wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. That's why he composed so many songs about the working class and the disenfranchised. And that's why, though all of us can handle the tune to "This Land Is Your Land," we're going to keep celebrating those bombs bursting in air.