Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He had little formal education, for which he compensated to a degree with intensive reading. Guthrie led one of the most tragic lives of any notable American. His father was a failure in both politics and business and died on skid row. His mother killed his only sister in an insane rage before dying of Huntington's chorea, which she passed on to Guthrie. In later years Guthrie lost his own infant daughter in a fire. Virtually orphaned at the age of 14 when his family broke up, Guthrie developed an itinerant way of life that he never entirely abandoned until his final hospitalization.
In the course of his travels Guthrie learned to perform folk songs, first those of others but later increasingly his own. In 1937 he obtained through a cousin the first of many, usually short-lived, radio jobs, singing and playing on a Los Angeles station. He also acquired permanent ties to the Communist Party. In 1940 he arrived in New York and was discovered by Alan Lomax, assistant director of the Archive of Folk Songs of the Library of Congress. Lomax recorded many of Guthrie's songs for the library and promoted his career in other ways, such as by inducing Victor Records to produce a two album, 12 record set of Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads." Though they did not sell, the ballads were to have lasting influence.
In 1941 Guthrie joined the Almanac Singers, a left-wing folk music group that included Pete Seeger, ultimately, with Guthrie, its best known member. On February 14, 1942, the Almanacs achieved their greatest exposure by performing on a program called "This Is War" that was aired by all four networks. But newspaper stories about the group's Communist affiliations prevented the Almanacs from achieving commercial success, and they dissolved within a year. Most of the members of the Almanacs were ardently anti-Nazi and went into the military. Guthrie too supported the war. "This Machine Kills Fascists" was inscribed on his guitar. But he hoped to accomplish his goal at a distance, trying vainly to be exempted from the draft. To avoid induction he served in the merchant marine. That was a dangerous strategy: two of the three ships he served on were lost. In addition, he was drafted anyway. Upon his discharge from the army in 1946 he joined People's Songs, another radical music association. It too failed because of the Communist connection, which gave even more offense during the Cold War than earlier.
Pete Seeger organized a folk-singing group called The Weavers in 1948, and for several years it produced one hit record after another. Though Guthrie was not a Weaver, their success helped his music. His "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" became one of their most popular numbers. But The Weavers were soon blacklisted, and the vogue for popularized folk music disappeared with them. By this time Guthrie was visibly failing, and in 1952 Huntington's chorea, a gradual but invariably fatal disease of the nervous system, was diagnosed. He died of it on October 3, 1967.
Though a poor musician and erratic performer, Guthrie wrote an estimated 1, 000 songs which have earned him a secure place in musical history. When he was discovered, folk music had few fans except radicals and a handful of admirers and musicologists. Guthrie and The Weavers were responsible for its brief popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s and influenced the greater following it developed ten years later. Though folk music became less popular, it continued to exist, and Guthrie's legacy is very much a part of it.
Guthrie's legend is harder to assess. He was famous among leftists in the 1940s, and by the 1960s, though hospitalized and unable to speak, he had become a mythic figure. Bob Dylan, before he himself became famous as the leading composer of political songs, made a pilgrimage to Guthrie's bedside. Guthrie's reputation was based on his authentic folk origins and hobo inclinations, his remarkable talents as a writer and composer, and a romantic appreciation of his politics. This last was especially misplaced. Guthrie's political instincts were populist, nourished by the indigenous American socialism that flourished briefly in Oklahoma before and during World War I. He was influenced too by the Industrial Workers of the World, the fabled Wobblies, some of whom he met in his travels. But he early became associated with the Communist Party and, though never subject to party discipline (or any other kind), faithfully followed the Communist line during its worst phases from the 1930s through the Korean War.
An honest though politically unsophisticated biography is Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980). Guthrie's own memoir, Bound for Glory (1943), bears only a poetic relation to the truth and ends before he had gained any reputation. His miscellaneous writings, all edited by other people, include Born To Win (1965), Seeds of Man (1976), and The Woody Guthrie Songbook (1976). □