Writer and performer of folk songs, Woody Guthrie composed "This Land Is Your Land," a song many call an unofficial national anthem. His music, which celebrates the good in people, includes messages of unity and brotherly love and remains the anthem of the poor and broken.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, the third of Charles and Nora Guthrie's five children. Guthrie's grandmother was one of the first schoolteachers in the county. His father was a professional guitarist and prizefighter who regularly encouraged physical fitness and wrestling. Guthrie's mother taught social awareness and folk music. His father's message was to never be bullied, while his mother's message was to try to see the world from the other person's perspective. Despite a shortened high school education and no formal musical training, Guthrie's eager reading and focus on music supported him throughout his life. All of the Guthrie children were brought up on blues and Native American songs, favored by their father, and folk songs, favored by their mother.
Guthrie led one of the most tragic lives of any famous American. A series of family tragedies overlapped with the nation's slide into the Great Depression (a time of severe economic hardship in the 1930s). Two homes burned to the ground and another was destroyed. Guthrie's mother became ill with Huntington's chorea (a gradual, fatal disease of the nervous system), which she passed on to Guthrie. His father lost all of his businesses as the country struggled with the Stock Market Crash (October 29, 1929; a day when investors sold over sixteen million shares of stocks because they feared the possible effects of a recently signed tax bill—many people lost everything, suicides were common, banks failed, and stores closed). Virtually orphaned at the age of fourteen, with his family falling apart, Guthrie developed a roaming way of life that he never entirely abandoned.
In the course of Guthrie's travels he learned to perform folk songs, first those of others but later his own. He survived with odd jobs in settings as varied as hobo camps and barbershops. With a harmonica and the music of his parents he traveled the southwest, witnessing the devastation of both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (a time during the 1930s when thousands of people left their farms in a region of the Great Plains after overuse of land and a long period without rain caused massive dust storms and made farming in the area impossible).
In Texas Woody was given his first and only guitar. With a few chords under his belt he began writing songs, some to old tunes and some to new ones. In 1937 he got a hold of, through a cousin, the first of many radio jobs, singing and playing on a Los Angeles station. He also acquired permanent ties to the Communist Party (a political party that promotes a society in which all goods and services are divided equally between the people). In 1940 he arrived in New York City 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. He also promoted Guthrie's career in other ways, such as by getting Victor Records to produce a two album, twelve record set of Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads." (A ballad is a song that tells a story.) Though they did not sell, the ballads were to have a lasting influence.
A witness to Hoovervilles (clusters of homeless people living in cardboard box villages named after President Herbert Hoover [1874–1964] who had promised better times) and migrant camps (temporary housing for families who get paid to harvest crops and move frequently to follow the harvest), Woody was drawn to people with a social conscience (an awareness of less fortunate members of society). Actor Will Geer teamed up with him and toured both labor camps and farm worker strikes.
At the brink of America's entry into World War II (1939–45; a war in which the Allies—Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States [from 1941], and others—fought against the German-led Axis forces), Guthrie joined the Almanac Singers, a left-wing folk music group that included Pete Seeger (1919–), who eventually became a well-known member along with Guthrie. On February 14, 1942, the Almanacs gained their greatest exposure when they performed on a program called "This Is War," which was aired by four major networks. Except, newspaper stories about the group's Communist affiliations prevented the Almanacs from achieving commercial success. They dissolved within a year. Most of the members of the Almanacs were very anti-Nazi (German political party in rule during World War II that believed in the superiority of the white Aryan [German] race), and they enrolled in the U.S. military.
Guthrie supported the war too. "This Machine Kills Fascists" (people who support a centralized government ruled by a dictator with absolute power) was inscribed on his guitar. But he hoped to accomplish his goal at a distance. He tried in vain to avoid the draft (government selection for military service). To stay out of the U.S. military he served in the merchant marine, but it was a dangerous strategy—two of the three ships he served on were lost. In addition, he was drafted into service anyway. Upon his discharge from the army in 1946 he joined People's Songs, another radical (extreme) musical association. It also failed because of the Communist connection, which was even more offensive during the Cold War (1945–89; a struggle for world power between the United States and the Soviet Union).
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 (labeled as Communists and therefore not given any financial or professional support), and the fashion for popularized folk music disappeared with them.
By this time Guthrie's health was visibly failing. In 1952 he was diagnosed with Huntington's chorea. He died of the disease on October 3, 1967, in New York City.
Though a poor musician and an inconsistent performer, Guthrie wrote an estimated one thousand songs, which have earned him a secure place in musical history. When he was discovered, folk music had few fans except radicals (extremists) and a handful of admirers and musicologists (music researchers). Guthrie and The Weavers were responsible for folk music's brief popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and they influenced the greater following it developed ten years later. Though folk music became less popular, it continued to exist, and Guthrie's legacy was very much a part of it. The year 2001 brought a revival of folk music mania after the release of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a movie set in the 1930s that was rich with folk and hill music.
Guthrie's legendary influence on folk music is hard to assess. He was famous among leftists (those wishing for change and reform) in the 1940s, and by the 1960s, though hospitalized and unable to speak, he had become a heroic figure. Bob Dylan (1941–), before he himself became famous as the leading composer of political songs, made a pilgrimage (a journey to show respect) 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.
For More Information
Christenson, Bonnie. Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People. New York: Knopf, 2001.
Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1980.
Santelli, Robert, and Emily Davidson, eds. Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.
Yates, Janelle. Woody Guthrie: American Balladeer. New York: Ward Hill Press, 1995.
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Woody Guthrie (Woodrow Wilson Guthrie), 1912–67, American folk singer, guitarist, and composer, b. Okemah, Okla. Guthrie was an itinerant musician and laborer from the age of 13. Deeply involved in union and left-wing politics, he wrote many of his more than 1,000 published songs on themes of social injustice, poverty, and politics. A friend of Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Ramblin Jack Elliott, Guthrie became an iconic figure in American folk music, exerting great influence on younger performers, notably Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. His most famous song is undoubtedly
"This Land Is Your Land."
Other songs include
"Pretty Boy Floyd,"
"Pastures of Plenty,"
Guthrie also wrote a Dust Bowl novel, House of Earth (1947, pub. 2013).
See his autobiography, Bound for Glory (1943, rev. ed. 1968) and his partially fictional memoir Seeds of Man (written 1930s, pub. 1976, repr. 1995); biographies by J. Klein (1980), E. Cray (2004), and W. Kaufman (2011); R. Shelton, ed., Born to Win (1965); H. Yurchenco and M. Guthrie, A Mighty Hard Road (1970).
Guthrie's son, Arlo Guthrie, 1947–, b. New York City, is also a folk singer and composer. He is best known for "Alice's Restaurant," a rambling, witty song that was the basis of a motion picture in which he starred (1969).
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Singer, songwriter, guitarist
“Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was a short, wiry guy VV with a mop of curly hair under a cowboy hat, as I first saw him. He’d stand with his guitar slung on his back, spinning out stories like Will Rogers, with a faint. Then he’d hitch his guitar around and sing the longest long outlaw ballad you ever heard, or some Rabelaisian fantasy he’d concocted the day before and might never sing again,” Pete Seeger described Woody Guthrie in his 1967 eulogy in Life magazine.
Guthrie, Seeger claimed, wrote more than 1000 songs. Many of them, like “This Land is Your Land,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” and “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” have become American folk song standards. Many were written only for the moment to enliven a union hall rally or to entertain the hobos and dust bowl refugees he traveled with. Most were never intended for publication or the recording studio. He was also an avid collector of American folk songs, and many of his own songs consisted of original lyrics written to traditional melodies. This prolific writer and itinerant troubadour became a legend in his own time and helped usher in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
His skills are succinctly assessed by Murray Kempton in the New York Review of Books: “As composer he was more collector than creator; the tunes that provide royalties to his heirs represent the mining of traditional themes rather than the search for fresh ones. His vocal range was severely limited; his tones were dry and his voice had the harsh and distancing timbre that Klein [in his biography of Guthrie] captures nicely when he says that listening to Guthrie was like biting into a lemon.”
Kempton also suggested that Guthrie’s status as a legendary folk hero belies the reality of the artist’s life. He was not a dirt farmer, his family were townsfolk. Although he hung out with hobos, he eventually shied away from boxcar travel because hitching rides on the highway was much safer. He earned his meals picking songs in saloons, not picking fruit in the fields with the dust bowl refugees whose plight he described in song. “The roving life was a choice rather than a necessity, and more a flight from family tragedy than from otherwise hopeless poverty,” Kempton concluded.
Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okema, Oklahoma. His father, Charles, had a successful real estate business, but his business failed when more aggressive traders moved in on the heels of an oil boom. His mother, Nora, showed signs of increasing mental instability during Guthrie’s youth and she was committed to a state mental institution after a fire (which she may have started) severely burned Charles. When Charles left town, Guthrie, at age 14, was left to drift on his own. He and his older brother Roy took up residence with a poor family and he attended high school, worked at
Full name, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie; born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla.; died of Huntington’s chorea, October 3, 1967, in Queens, N.Y.; son of Charles Edward (in real estate) and Nora Belle (a housewife; maiden name, Tanner) Guthrie; married first wife, Marry Jennings, October 28, 1933 (divorced); married second wife, Marjorie Mazia Greenblatt (a dancer and teacher), November 13, 1945 (divorced); married Anneke (Marshall) Van Kirk, 1953 (divorced); children (first marriage) Gwendolyn Gail, Carolyn Sue, Bill Rogers (died, 1962); (second marriage), Cathy Ann (died, 1947), Arlo Davy, Joady Ben, Nora Lee; (third marriage) Lorina Lynn. Education: Attended Brooklyn College.
Held a variety of odd jobs, including newsboy, junk collector, milkman, shoe shiner, service station attendant, sigh painter, and real estate agent; appeared with cousin, Jack Guthrie, on daily radio programs on KFVD, Los Angeles, beginning 1937; also appeared on radio programs broadcast out of New York City; performed in waterfront saloons, picket lines, migratory camps, army camps, union halls, on ski rows, and at country fairs, dances, rodeos, and carnivals; recording artist, 1940—; also author of books, including autobiography, Bound for Glory, and of numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, including People’s World and the Daily Worker. Military service: U.S. Merchant Marine, 1942-45; U.S. Army Air Forces, 1945-46.
Awards: Fellowship from Julius Rosenwald Fund, 1943, to “write books, ballads, songs, and novels that will help people to know each other’s work better.”
odd jobs, and learned to play harmonica. A couple of years later he hit the road, a pattern that would be repeated throughout his life.
Guthrie learned many old-time songs by listening to his mother sing, but generally, his immediate family was not musically inclined. He was taught to play guitar by his uncle Jeff Guthrie and worked with him on a shortlived traveling show. Later, in 1937, he had a radio show with his cousin Jack Guthrie on KFVD in Los Angeles. He moved to New York and was popular on several “hillbilly” radio shows that were popular at the time but he left the radio business when he was not allowed to perform his more sensitive, politically-oriented songs.
In 1941 he was employed briefly by the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon to write songs about the building of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. His biographer, Joe Klein, called this the most productive period of his life—in one month he wrote nearly a song per day, including the last of his dust bowl ballads, “Pastures of Plenty,” a song than many consider his best. He occasionally joined Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in performances by the Almanac Singers, a song collective which, as they were described by The Progressive, “attempted to translate folk sources into materials that would inspire working people to create a socialist America through their unions.”
Guthrie wrote more than songs. He wrote two major autobiographical works as well as songbooks. He was an occasional journalist and an avid letter writer; he wrote in book margins, drew and scribbled on calendars, notebooks, and endless scraps of paper. Joe Klein tells of being overwhelmed by a room of file cabinets filled with unpublished material when Marjorie, Guthrie’s second wife, agreed to let him write Guthrie’s definitive biography.
Guthrie’s best-received book, Bound for Glory, an autobiography of his early years, was published in 1943. It is a vivid tale told in the artist’s own down-home dialect, with the flare 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: “Some day 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.”
Guthrie was first recorded in 1940 by Alan Lomax, who had become enamored with rural southern folk music while traveling the South with his father, John Lomax, who was making archival recordings of the music of Southern black prisoners. In 1940, Lomax, who was assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, recorded a collection of Guthrie interviews and songs for the Library. The recordings were eventually released in 1964 by Electra. These recordings are essential Guthrie listening. Also in 1940, Victor Records recorded another vital collection, the Dust Bowl Ballads.
In 1944 Moses Asch, a recording pioneer with a love for American folk music, arranged a series of recording sessions at which Guthrie, backed occasionally by Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and Leadbelly, recorded over 150original and traditional folk songs. Many of these early recordings were released on Asch’s Folkways label and are still available today, including three volumes of children’s songs called Songs to Grow On.
The last 15 years of Guthrie’s life were spent in the hospital suffering from the degenerative effects of the inherited disease Huntington’s chorea. During this time, the 1950s and 1960s, folk music became a major trend and Guthrie became a living legend, his bedside visited by aspiring folk singers like Bob Dylan, who celebrated the man in his “Song to Woody.” On one wee-kend visit home he taught Arlo Guthrie, his son from his second marriage and a successful folk singer in his own right, the radical verses he had written to “This Land is your Land,” which he felt were in danger of being lost now that the song was being suggested as a replacement for the “Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem.
As the songwriter lay dying, slowly losing the use of his limbs, his ability to speak and focus his eyes, his songs began to achieve the wide recognition they deserved. Popular folk performers like the Weavers, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary were recording Woody Guthrie songs. One of the last songs Guthrie wrote, about a year after he had entered the hospital, was “I Ain’t Dead Yet.” The song is symbolic of his indomitable spirit—which refused to give up when faced with life’s many hardships—and his penchant for turning hardship into song.
Bound for Glory, Folkways.
This Land is Your Land, Folkways.
Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs (2 volumes), Folkways.
Poor Boy, Folkways.
Songs to Grow On (3 volumes), Folkways.
Cowboy Songs (with Cisco Houston), Stinson.
Folk Songs (with Cisco Houston), Stinson.
Woody Guthrie: Library of Congress Recordings, Elektra, 1964.
Columbia River Collection, Rounder, 1987.
Dust Bowl Ballads, Folkways.
Guthrie, Woody, Bound for Glory, Dutton (originally published 1943).
Klein, Joe, Woody Guthrie: A Life, Knopf, 1980.
New York Review of Books, February 19, 1981.
Life, April 2, 1967.
Library Journal, March 15, 1943.
New Yorker, March 20, 1943.
The Progressive, February, 1981.
"Guthrie, Woody." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/guthrie-woody
"Guthrie, Woody." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/guthrie-woody