"all you can write is what you see."
Dated Feb 23rd 1940, that note appears in Woody Guthrie's own handwriting beneath the first draft of the song that would become an American icon. Named for the date on Guthrie's lyric sheet, Blackwing's Volume 223 celebrates a monumental figure of musical and American history, and his song "This Land is Your Land" – a piece of music of such significance that some consider it America's alternative national anthem.
A Guthrie self-portrait from one of his many notebooks, recreated in Volume 223's Composition Notebook
Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Woody Guthrie was immersed in traditional English and Irish folk songs as well as the Southern blues, with both genres influencing his distinctive songwriting style. Spending his formative years traveling by foot and by freight train, Guthrie mapped Dust Bowl-era America and honed his skills as a musician, filling dozens of notebooks with poems, stories, letters, song lyrics, photographs, paintings and more that captured the ground-level stories of people devastated and displaced by severe drought in the midst of the Great Depression. Whether it be singing of the plight of Okies fleeing to California in "Do-Re-Mi" or "Ludlow Massacre" documenting the Colorado Coalfield War, Woody Guthrie gave his pencil and guitar strings to the people history too easily forgets.
First written at Hanover House in New York, "This Land is Your Land" continues a folk tradition of borrowing an existing melody (in this instance, the Carter Family's "When The World's On Fire") and writing new lyrics. The original title, "God Blessed America", was written in reaction to Irving Berlin's wartime patriotic standard, "God Bless America", but that snarky angle was quickly crossed out in favour of the more optimistic tone that secured its place in history.
Guthrie's original handwritten lyrics sheet
More than 80 years later, "This Land is Your Land" has only grown in the American consciousness. Jennifer Lopez performed it at President Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony, and the late great Sharon Jones gave it a soulful punch with the Dap-Kings that captured some of the original's fiery energy.
It's not a song without controversy – several Native American writers and musicians have criticised the tone-deaf way it talks about land "made for you and me" that was stolen from the First Nations people living on it. But like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA", "This Land is Your Land" is less overtly jingoistic than it might seem, with often-excluded verses about private property and people starving that add a little more complexity to the mix.
In some ways, though, it's fitting that the version of "This Land is Your Land" that endures is one that holds out some hope for the future. In a time where things seem increasingly bleak, Guthrie's humble vision of a ribbon of highway and an endless skyway feels quietly utopian, with a hopeful quality that can be hard to find.
The ribbons of highway, golden valleys and endless skyways of Volume 223
The Volume 223 pencil set celebrates that vision, representing the highway, skyway and golden valleys of Guthrie's lyrics, with an earth-brown eraser as a nod to his Dust Bowl legacy. Paired with it is a Composition Notebook directly inspired by one of Guthrie's own, channeling a slice of vintage Americana that held within its handwritten pages a first-person record of a pivotal time in history.
Volume 223's Composition Notebook (left) and the Guthrie original
In a New Yorker review of Woody Guthrie's 1943 autobiography, Bound for Glory, writer Clifton Fadiman said, "Someday people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession, like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world." With Guthrie's legacy only growing stronger, it seems like that day may be just around the corner.
Explore Blackwing's Volume 223