Woody Guthrie, the great American troubadour, is as revelant as ever in his 102th year.
Guthrie was a singer-songwriter and folk musician whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children's songs, ballads and improvised works. He frequently performed with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” displayed on his guitar.
His best-known song is "This Land Is Your Land." Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. Such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers and Tom Paxton have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.
Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States Communist groups, though he was seemingly not a member of any.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie died from complications of Huntington's disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, a small town in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate soon to be elected President of the United States.
The young Guthrie seemed to have a natural affinity for music and easily learned to play a harmonica by ear. He began to use his musical skills around town, playing a song for a sandwich or coins. Guthrie easily learned old ballads and traditional English & Scots songs from the parents of friends. Although he did not excel as a student (he dropped out of high school in his fourth year and did not graduate), his teachers described him as bright. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics. Friends recall his reading constantly.
At age 19, Guthrie met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children, Gwendolyn, Sue and Bill. With the advent of the Dust Bowl era, Guthrie joined the thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for work. Many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by these working class people.
During the late part of that decade, he achieved fame with radio partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman as a broadcast performer of commercial "hillbilly" music and traditional folk music. Guthrie was making enough money to send for his family. While appearing on the commercial radio station KFVD, owned by a populist-minded New Deal Democrat Frank W. Burke, Guthrie began to write and perform some of the protest songs that would eventually appear on Dust Bowl Ballads.
It was at KFVD that Guthrie met newscaster Ed Robbin. Robbin was impressed with a song Guthrie wrote about Thomas Mooney, believed by many to be a wrongly convicted man who was, at the time, a leftist cause célèbre. Robbin, who became Guthrie's political mentor, introduced Guthrie to socialists and Communists in Southern California, including Will Geer (who, in turn, introduced Guthrie to John Steinbeck).
Robbin remained Guthrie's lifelong friend, and helped Guthrie book benefit performances in the Communist circles in Southern California. Notwithstanding Guthrie's later claim that "the best thing that I did in 1936 was to sign up with the Communist Party," he was never a member of the Party.
He was noted as a fellow traveler—an outsider who agreed with the platform of the party while not subject to party discipline.
Will Geer invited Guthrie to visit New York. Arriving in city, Guthrie, known as "the Oklahoma cowboy," was embraced by its leftist folk music community. For a time, he slept on a couch in Geer's apartment. Guthrie made his first recordings—several hours of conversation and songs recorded by the folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress—as well as an album, Dust Bowl Ballads, for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey.
Guthrie was tired of the radio overplaying Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." He thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent. Partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for "God Bless America," he wrote his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land," in February 1940; it was subtitled "God Blessed America for Me."
The melody is adapted from an old gospel song, "Oh My Loving Brother." This was best known as "When The World's On Fire," sung by the country group The Carter Family. Guthrie signed the manuscript with the comment, "All you can write is what you see, Woody G., N.Y., N.Y., N.Y."
In March 1940, Guthrie was invited to play at a benefit hosted by The John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers, to raise money for migrant workers. There he met the folksinger Pete Seeger, and the two men became good friends. Later, Seeger accompanied Guthrie back to Texas to meet other members of the Guthrie family. He recalled an awkward conversation with Mary Guthrie's mother, in which she asked for Seeger's help to persuade Guthrie to treat her daughter better.
Guthrie had some success in New York at this time as a guest on CBS's radio program Back Where I Come From and used his influence to get a spot on the show for his friend Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. Ledbetter's Tenth Street apartment was a gathering spot for the leftwing musician circle in New York at the time, and Guthrie and Ledbetter were good friends, as they had busked together at bars in Harlem.
In November 1941, Seeger introduced Guthrie to his friend the poet Charles Olson, then a junior editor at the fledgling magazine Common Ground. The meeting led to Guthrie writing the article Ear Players in the Spring 1942 issue of the magazine. The article marked Guthrie's debut as a published writer in the mainstream media.
In September 1940, Guthrie was invited by the Model Tobacco Company to host their radio program, Pipe Smoking Time. Guthrie was paid $180 a week, an impressive salary in 1940. He was finally making enough money to send regular payments back to Mary, who was living in Texas. He also brought her and the children to New York, where the family lived briefly in an apartment on Central Park West.
The reunion represented Woody's desire to be a better father and husband. He said "I have to set ['sic'] real hard to think of being a dad." Guthrie quit after the seventh broadcast, claiming he had begun to feel the show was too restrictive when he was told what to sing. Disgruntled with New York, Guthrie packed up Mary and his children in a new car and headed west to California.
In May 1941, after a brief stay in Los Angeles, Guthrie moved the family north to Washington state on the promise of a job. While writing songs for a documentary, Guthrie toured the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest. He said he "couldn't believe it, it's a paradise," which appeared to inspire him creatively. In one month Guthrie wrote 26 songs, including three of his most famous: "Roll On Columbia," "Pastures of Plenty" and "Grand Coulee Dam." The surviving songs were released as Columbia River Songs.
At the conclusion of the month in Oregon and Washington, Guthrie wanted to return to New York. Tired of the continual uprooting, Mary Guthrie told him to go without her and the children. Although Guthrie would see Mary again, once on a tour through Los Angeles with the Almanac Singers, it was essentially the end of their marriage.
Following the conclusion of his work in Washington State, Guthrie corresponded with Pete Seeger about Seeger's newly formed folk-protest group, the Almanac Singers. Guthrie returned to New York with plans to tour the country as a member of the group. The singers originally worked out of a loft in New York City hosting regular concerts called "hootenannys," a word Pete and Woody had picked up in their cross-country travels. The singers eventually outgrew the space and moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village.
Initially Guthrie helped write and sing what the Almanac Singers termed "peace" songs; while the Nazi-Soviet Pact was in effect, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Communist line was that World War II was a capitalist fraud. After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the group wrote anti-fascist songs. The members of the Almanac Singers and residents of the Almanac House were a loosely defined group of musicians, though the 'core' members included Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays.
In keeping with common socialist ideals, meals, chores and rent at the Almanac House were shared. The Sunday hootenannys were good opportunities to collect donation money for rent. Songs written in the Almanac House had shared songwriting credits among all the members, although in the case of "Union Maid," members would later state that Guthrie wrote the song, ensuring that his children would receive residuals.
In the Almanac House, Guthrie added authenticity to their work, since he was a "real" working-class Oklahoman. "There was the heart of America personified in Woody ... And for a New York Left that was primarily Jewish, first or second generation American, and was desperately trying to get Americanized, I think a figure like Woody was of great, great importance," a friend of the group, Irwin Silber, would say.
Guthrie was a prolific writer, penning thousands of pages of unpublished poems and prose, many written while living in New York City. After a recording session with Alan Lomax, Lomax suggested Guthrie write an autobiography. Lomax thought Guthrie's descriptions of growing up were some of the best accounts he had read of American childhood.
During this time Guthrie met Marjorie Mazia, a dancer in New York who would become his second wife. Mazia was an instructor at the prestigious Martha Graham Dance School, where she was assisting Sophie Maslow with her piece Folksay.
Based on the folklore and poetry collected by Carl Sandburg, Folksay included the adaptation of some of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads for the dance. Guthrie continued to write songs and began work on his autobiography. The end product, Bound for Glory, was completed with the patient editing assistance of Mazia and was first published by E.P. Dutton in 1943.
It is vividly told in the artist's down-home dialect, with the flair and imagery of a true storyteller. Library Journal complained about the "too careful reproduction of illiterate speech." But Clifton Fadiman, reviewing the book in the New York Times, paid the author a fine tribute: "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.” A film adaptation of Bound for Glory was released in 1976.
In 1944, Guthrie met Moses "Moe" Asch of Folkways Records, for whom he first recorded "This Land Is Your Land." Over the next few years, he recorded "Worried Man Blues," along with hundreds of other songs. These recordings would later be released by Folkways and Stinson Records, which had joint distribution rights. The Folkways recordings are available (through the Smithsonian Institute online shop); the most complete series of these sessions, culled from dates with Asch, is titled The Asch Recordings.
Guthrie served in the Merchant Marine during the war. In 1945, his association with Communism made him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
While he was on furlough from the Army, Guthrie and Marjorie were married. After his discharge, they moved into a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island and over time had four children. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at age four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression. Their other children were Joady, Nora and Arlo. Arlo followed in his father's footsteps as a singer-songwriter. During this period, Guthrie wrote and recorded Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, a collection of children's music, which includes the song "Goodnight Little Arlo (Goodnight Little Darlin')," written when Arlo was about nine years old.
The years living on Mermaid Avenue were among Guthrie's most productive periods as a writer. His extensive writings from this time were archived and maintained by Marjorie and later his estate, mostly handled by Guthrie's daughter, Nora. Several of the manuscripts contain scribblings by a young Arlo and the other Guthrie offspring.
During this time Ramblin' Jack Elliott studied extensively under Guthrie, visiting his home and observing how he wrote and performed. Elliott, like Bob Dylan later, idolized Guthrie and was inspired by his idiomatic performance style and repertoire. Because of Guthrie's suffering Huntington's disease, Dylan and Guthrie's son Arlo later claimed they learned much of Guthrie's performance style from Elliott.
When asked about Arlo's claim, Elliott said, "I was flattered. Dylan learned from me the same way I learned from Woody. Woody didn't teach me. He just said, If you want to learn something, just steal it—that's the way I learned from Lead Belly."
By the late 1940s, Guthrie's health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), but in 1952, it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder inherited from his mother.
Guthrie, increasingly unable to control his muscles, was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital until 1966, and finally at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center until his death.
When Bob Dylan, who idolized Guthrie and whose early folk career was largely inspired by him, learned that Guthrie was hospitalized in Brooklyn, he was determined to meet his idol. By this time, Guthrie was said to have his "good days" and "bad days."
On the good days, Dylan would sing songs to him, and at the beginning Guthrie seemed to warm to Dylan. When the bad days came, Guthrie would berate Dylan. Reportedly on Dylan's last visit, Guthrie did not recognize him.
At the end of his life, Guthrie was largely alone except for family. Because of the progression of Huntington's, he was difficult to be around. Guthrie's illness was essentially untreated, because of a lack of information about the disease. He died on Oct. 3, 1967 at age 55.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people was inspired by folk singers including Guthrie. These "folk revivalists" became more politically aware in their music than those of the previous generation. The American Folk Revival was beginning to take place, focused on the issues of the day, such as the civil rights movement and free speech movement.