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.
Born July 14, 1912
Died October 3, 1967
"This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me."
W oody Guthrie was the foremost composer of folk music in twentieth-century America. His hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, is just the sort of place one would expect him to be from. He once described Okemah as "one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns."
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
In 1929, prices on the New York Stock Exchange fell steeply on October 25, or Black Friday, as it was called later. Overnight, millions of ordinary Americans who had borrowed money to buy shares in companies suddenly found that those shares were worth less than the money they had borrowed. Many of them had no way of repaying the loans, which meant that banks that had loaned the money became short of cash. When bank customers tried to withdraw their money, they discovered that the banks could not cover their deposits (the source of the loans made by banks). Banks, in need of money to pay depositors, demanded that loans be repaid, driving small businesses out of business.
Black Friday was the start of a long economic depression, a time when businesses failed for lack of customers, when people lost their jobs and could not find another one. Business owners did not want to take a chance on hiring someone for fear that times would get worse and that the dollar saved by not hiring someone would be needed to tide them over. Consumers felt the same way about spending money, which made businesses even more nervous.
On the Great Plains, the Depression was accompanied by a second crisis: drought. The settlement of the plains by so-called dry-land farmers (so named because there was no water for irrigation) was an ecological disaster that became evident during the long dry spell in the 1930s. With the land broken by years of plowing, powerful windstorms swept across the parched soil and raised great clouds of dust unlike anything previously seen by settlers of North America. In April 1935, a particularly powerful storm blew dust for hundreds of miles. The dust buried what crops there were, sometimes reaching as high as fence posts. The top soil that had supported farming was blown off overnight, making more farming impossible. The storm was known as the Great Dust Storm, and the land it affected was called the Dust Bowl.
Time magazine, reporting on the "Great Dust Storm," said: "Originally confined to a 200-mile strip between Canada and Mexico, last week's dust storm suddenly swirled eastward over Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas, crossed the Mississippi to unload on Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana." The clouds of dust snuffed out the last hopes of many still clinging to their farms and homes in the area called the Dust Bowl.
Coming on top of a national economic depression, the drought meant that farmers could not repay loans they had taken out to plant crops or buy their farms. Banks foreclosed, or took possession of the property in order to collect money owed them.
Thousands of families loaded their meager possessions into old cars and trucks and headed west, for California. The emigrants were known as Okies or Arkies. They came not just from Oklahoma and Arkansas, but from all over the Midwest and as far east as Georgia. They had no money and most had little education. In California, they were feared and unwanted and thus hated. Okies lived in their cars, parked in camps in the countryside, unable to find work or homes. Their story was told by author John Steinbeck (1902–1968) in Grapes of Wrath—and by Woody Guthrie, in dozens of folksongs about the poor and dispossessed.
Woody Guthrie's story
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912, named after that year's Democratic candidate (and eventual victor) for president, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21). Guthrie's father, Charles, had been a cowboy and then a land speculator and politician in Okemah. Beneath the dirt farms of Oklahoma lay a great pool of oil. With the coming of the automobile, as well as oil-burning machines in factories, the demand for petroleum soared in the first decades of the twentieth century. The year 1897 was important in Oklahoma when oil was discovered in the town of Bartlesville.
In the next decade, more oil was discovered, and still more oil, as drillers sank holes throughout the state in hopes of finding a fortune. Guthrie's father was pushed out of business as Okemah turned into an oil boom town, a place where oil was found and the sudden wealth it created changed the nature of the place.
Guthrie's mother, Nora Belle Tanner Guthrie, began showing symptoms of Huntington's chorea, an inherited brain disease that causes a gradual loss of control—of mental functions, of emotions, and of physical movements. According to Guthrie's biographer Joe Klein, in Woody Guthrie: A Life, Guthrie's sister died in a fire at a time when Nora Guthrie could not fully understand what was happening and save her daughter. Later, another fire seriously injured Guthrie's father, and afterwards Nora Guthrie was confined to a mental hospital. Charles Guthrie sent his younger children to live with his sister in Pampa, Texas. Woody, a teenager, stayed behind in Okemah for awhile, living with friends, until he rejoined his family in Pampa.
Guthrie organized a music group in Pampa, the Corncob Trio, and appeared on the radio as well as playing at dances. In 1933, the twenty-one-year-old Guthrie met and married Mary Jennings, the sister of another member of the Corncob trio.
In 1936, the year after the Great Dust Storm, Guthrie left Texas, joining the great crowd of desperate people headed west. He hitchhiked, or rode freight trains, staying with friends or in hobo camps, eventually making his way to Los Angeles. Guthrie was not a displaced farmer, but he moved among many people who were, and gave them a voice through his songs.
Woody Guthrie, migrant singer
In California, Guthrie's musical career picked up. In 1937, he and his uncle Jeff had a radio program playing country
folk music on station KFVD, with Guthrie commenting on current events in a way that appealed to the many refugees from the Midwest who had migrated to California.
While in Los Angeles, Guthrie became friends with several people who belonged to the American Communist Party. Guthrie himself became committed to communism as a solution to the economic suffering around him. (Communists advocate government ownership and control of businesses and farms, and a nearly equal distribution of income.)
In 1939, Guthrie moved to New York City. There, his songs about Okies were embraced by political activists campaigning for the rights of unions and for democratic government control of the economy. Guthrie promoted the cause of trade unions, organizations of workers who negotiated pay and benefits with their employers as a group rather than as individual workers. He performed in saloons, army camps, and union meeting halls; on union picket lines; and at country fairs, rodeos, and carnivals. He was also a writer for magazines and communist newspapers such as People's World and The Daily Worker. In 1943, Guthrie published his autobiography, Bound for Glory.
Recordings brought Guthrie to a much wider audience than his live performances could have. In 1940, Alan Lomax (1915–2002), who worked for the Library of Congress as assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song, recorded Guthrie's songs as part of a project to capture folk music of the rural South. Victor Records also released recordings of Guthrie in 1940, on an album called Dust Bowl Ballads. In 1944, Guthrie recorded over 150 original and folk songs for another recording company that were released under the label "Folkways." One of Guthrie's songs, "The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)," recalled the Great Dust Storm:
The storm took place at sundown, it lasted through the night, When we looked out next morning, we saw a terrible sight. We saw outside our window where wheat fields they had grown Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown. It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns, It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm. We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in, We rattled down that highway to never come back again.
In 1941, Guthrie got a month-long job in Oregon working for the Bonneville Power Administration, a government agency building dams on the Columbia River to generate electricity. During that month, Guthrie wrote twenty-eight songs, including "Roll On Columbia."
After divorcing his first wife, Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblat Mazia (1917–1983), a dancer with the highly respected Martha Graham (1894–1991) modern dance company in New York, in 1945. Guthrie divorced his second wife and married Anneke Van Kirk in 1953. Altogether, he had eight children by three wives, including contemporary folk singer Arlo Guthrie (1947–), Guthrie's son by Mazia.
Guthrie was associated with (but not a member of) the Weavers, a popular folk music group that was successful until their communist sympathies were discovered. The group was "blacklisted," or put on a list of performers whose recordings were refused by radio stations. Guthrie's long association with communism made it much more difficult for him to find work, or companies that would release his records, from the early 1950s until the late 1960s.
Guthrie's family had not been farmers, and he had not lived the life of an Okie. But his songs reflected their experience. Unlike many country folk songs that tell of lost love, Guthrie's songs told of lost homes. Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) tried to rekindle hope in desperate Americans during the Depression by declaring that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Guthrie counseled collective action. In all, Guthrie wrote an estimated one thousand songs, some of which remain as popular tunes half a century later such as "Roll On Columbia," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," and "This Train Is Bound for Glory."
"This Land Is Your Land…"
One of Guthrie's best-known songs begins with the words: "This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me." What seems like a popular and innocent folk song in fact has a political background to it.
In 1940, Guthrie was hitchhiking from Texas to New York. A new song written by Irving Berlin (1888–1988) was sweeping the country: "God Bless America." To Guthrie in 1940, Berlin's song seemed out of touch with the conditions in the country. Guthrie biographer Joe Klein described his reaction: "'God Bless America' … was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver's seat." To Guthrie, the main point was not that God was in charge, but that people should organize themselves politically and economically to overcome the lingering effects of the Great Depression.
While Berlin's tune eventually became a virtual second national anthem, Guthrie's tune also caught the public imagination, though not to the full extent of Berlin's.
The impact of Woody Guthrie
Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Guthrie became ill with Huntington's chorea, the inherited ailment that struck down his mother. The onset of Huntington's chorea is not always obvious. Guthrie's behavior changed, and at first it was attributed to drinking too much alcohol. Victims of Huntington's chorea can become violent and moody. Guthrie spent most of his time in the hospital from 1954 until his death in 1967.
Guthrie's disease had long before removed him from the concert stage, but his songs had never died. One singer in particular who was dedicated to Guthrie in the early 1960s, who imitated Guthrie's style, sang some of his songs, and wrote others in the same style, was Bob Dylan (1941–). During the 1960s, when college students protested against the war in Vietnam, Dylan's songs echoed those of Guthrie a generation later.
Long after his death, Guthrie was honored by the recording industry for his contributions to a style and form of American music, the folk song of protest. In 1971, he was inducted into, or formally listed in, the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. He was made a member of the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1977, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1988. In 1999, he won a Grammy award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
—James L. Outman
For More Information
Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943.
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. Staten Island, NY: Ward Hill Press, 1995.
Gilgoff, Dan. "On Desolation Row." U.S. News and World Report (July 8, 2002): p. 48.
Morthland, John. "Prodigal Son: Left-wing Folk Singer Woody Guthrie Honed His Trade in Pampa, but 67 Years Later, the Town Is Just Beginning to Welcome Him Back Home." Texas Monthly (March 2003):p. 78.
Rosen, Jody. "Two American Anthems, in Two American Voices." New York Times (July 2, 2000): p. AR1.
"Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940–1950." Library of Congress: American Folklife Center.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/wwghome.html (accessed on March 15, 2004).
The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives.http://www.woodyguthrie.org (accessed on March 15, 2004).
"Woody Guthrie's Songs." Woody Guthrie: Songs & Prose of the Prophet Singer.http://www.woodyguthrie.de/lyrics.html (accessed on March 15, 2004).
born july 14, 1912 okemah, oklahoma
died october 3, 1967 queens, new york
songwriter, folksinger, social activist
Pete Seeger, in the foreword of Bound for Glory, by Woody Guthrie">
"He'd stand with his guitar slung on his back, spinning out stories like Will Rogers [popular 1930s entertainer], with a faint, wry grin."
pete seeger, in the foreword of bound for glory, by woody guthrie
Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie's musical career lasted just seventeen years. At the age of thirty-nine Guthrie was struck with Huntington's chorea, an inherited disease that had killed his mother. He nevertheless wrote over a thousand songs before his career came to a premature end. Guthrie's songs reflected his experiences of the 1930s Great Depression, severe drought on the Great Plains, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) New Deal programs, and World War II (1939–45). The New Deal was a collection of federal legislation and programs aimed at relieving the effects of the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn ever experienced in America. In the mid-1930s the New Deal increasingly focused on the common people—the Americans with whom Guthrie most identified. Through his music Guthrie became a spokesman for the oppressed and the victims of the Depression. His music focused on farmers, workers, unions, and the common people and the injustices these groups experienced. His seemingly simple songs are about complex social and environmental issues that were affecting the nation at that time. Some of his songs became American standards, including "This Land Is Your Land" and "Pastures of Plenty."
Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 in the small frontier farming community of Okemah, Oklahoma. His grandfather had been a Kansas farmer before moving the family to Oklahoma. Woody's father, Charles Guthrie, was a cattle rancher and sold real estate. His mother, Nora Belle Sherman, was a schoolteacher. Okemah, in existence for only ten years, was settled by people from diverse backgrounds who brought various music traditions with them. At gatherings the sounds of ballads, hillbilly music, church songs, and fiddle music all mingled together.
At age seven, Woody endured a series of family tragedies that would shape his life. His sister was killed in a fire possibly set by his mother, his father's business failed, and his mother was institutionalized when she began showing early signs of a hereditary disease called Huntington's chorea. Huntington's chorea affects the muscular system, leads to mental deterioration, and is eventually fatal.
In 1927 the family moved to Pampa, Texas, where Woody began learning how to play a guitar. Full of musical talent, the fifteen-year-old quickly mastered the guitar. He performed locally with his aunt playing accordion and his uncle playing fiddle under the name Corncob Trio and the Pampa Chamber of Commerce Band. He also learned to play the fiddle and mandolin and his stock of tunes grew. In the ninth and tenth grades, Woody performed in school plays, dancing, singing, playing guitar, and doing anything to get laughs. All the while the family struggled financially as Woody's father was in and out of work.
During his later teens, Woody left home at times and took up the hobo life. Wandering about the South, Guthrie studied and learned to play various forms of music, including country music, blues, gospel, and hoedown. He also developed a style of writing songs that involved forever rewriting them and playing them differently each time. Few of Guthrie's songs would ever make it to a finished state. He would often change them from performance to performance depending on the nature of the audience.
Identifying with the downtrodden
Guthrie returned to Pampa and began dating his good friend's sister, sixteen-year-old Mary Jennings, in 1933. He and Mary soon married and quickly had three children. Even though he was only twenty-one years old when he married, Guthrie had fascinating stories to tell of his days on the road. Everyone wanted to get to know and talk to him.
It was in Pampa, which is located in the Texas Pan-handle, that Guthrie experienced his first dust storm. Mary described it as seeming like the end of the world, with everything going dark and dust getting into even the lightbulbs. The Texas Panhandle was in the southern part of the Dust Bowl. The term "Dust Bowl" refers to the Great Plains region of the United States where years of severe drought in the 1930s led to a great loss of crops. Strong winds blew across the region, stirring up huge clouds of dust, causing serious erosion, and creating a barren landscape—a dust bowl.
As the Dust Bowl conditions grew worse, Guthrie observed the desperation of the farmers. He began to see farmers who were "dusted out"—defeated by the drought—heading down the road, their cars packed with family and household goods. They had to move on in search of new land or a new occupation. Guthrie often referred to the Dust Bowl refugees as "my people." Soon Guthrie began to write his "Dust Bowl Ballads." One of the earliest ballads was "Dust Storm Disaster." Between 1936 and 1941 Guthrie would write approximately twenty ballads about the dust storms, the farmers, and the farmers turned migrants.
Crisscrossing the United States
By 1937 Guthrie had again become restless. He wanted to go to California, so with guitar and bag he hitchhiked west. His talent was soon recognized, and he landed a spot on a radio show on KFVD in Los Angeles. The station paid Guthrie one dollar a day to sing his songs; with that security, Mary and the kids headed to Los Angeles to be with him. Guthrie spent a great deal of time getting to know people, "getting their story." He had a special fondness for people who worked the land, for the migrants who followed the harvest of the West, for the unemployed, and for anyone who was struggling. These are the people he wrote about in his songs.
One of Guthrie's acquaintances in Los Angeles was actor Will Geer (1902–1978), who promoted radical politics. He talked Guthrie into playing his music at a rally supporting socialism and communism as potential solutions to America's economic problems. Because he associated with such groups and because he wrote songs about workers and common people, Guthrie developed the reputation of being a political radical. However, those who best knew Guthrie scoffed at the idea. They maintained that his songs were not political but social protest music calling attention to the plight of the poor. Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, or Communists—Guthrie often said it made no difference to him; he played for them all. He played for whomever would listen.
In 1940 Geer was in New York and persuaded Guthrie to again leave Mary and the kids and hitchhike across the country to New York City. There, thanks to the efforts of folk music historian Alan Lomax, Guthrie was featured on a nationwide CBS radio network program and began to make good money. His family soon joined him. But before long Guthrie became disgruntled when he was told that all the songs he wrote and sang would have to be approved by the CBS staff. Besides, Woody Guthrie never liked to make too much money because it seemed like a violation of his relationship with the poor. So the whole Guthrie family piled into the new Plymouth car they had purchased and headed back to California.
Twenty-six songs in thirty days
Unable to find work in Los Angeles, Guthrie jumped at the chance to go to Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 1941 to work for a New Deal agency, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). His family accompanied him once again. The job was for one month and paid $266. Guthrie was to do what he did best: talk to people and write songs. The Bonneville Dam had just been finished, and the Grand Coulee Dam was under construction on the Columbia River in Washington State. Guthrie was asked to write one song a day for thirty days about the people and the river and how beneficial the power generated by the dams would be. The hydroelectric power was to be transmitted to businesses and homes by the BPA. Guthrie ended up writing twenty-six songs in thirty days. In those songs he caught the spirit of the people and of a beautiful, powerful river. Four of the most famous songs are "Roll On, Columbia," "Grand Coulee Dam," "Jackhammer Blues," and "Pastures of Plenty."
When the job with the BPA ended in mid-1941, Guthrie headed back to New York City, where he recorded the songs he had written for the BPA. He received thirty dollars for the recordings. Mary and the children did not follow Guthrie this time. Instead, they went to El Paso, Texas. Mary felt she must give the children a permanent home and put them in school. The separation was the end of Guthrie's first marriage.
Life after the Depression
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States entered World War II (1939–45). As the country mobilized for war, factories needed workers to help manufacture weapons and other war supplies. The armed services also offered instant employment. By creating new jobs, the war effectively put an end to the Great Depression.
During World War II Guthrie first served in the merchant marine, where he wrote songs in support of the war effort. Also during the war Guthrie published an autobiography, Bound for Glory, about his early life. In 1943 he joined the Almanac Singers along with folksinger Pete Seeger (1919–). Their music supported the work of political activists promoting the rights of the common worker. With the Almanac Singers, Guthrie developed a "talking blues" style, telling a story through his music. Later folksingers such as Bob Dylan (1941–) adopted this style. Late in the war Guthrie was drafted, and he served a year in the U.S. Army.
After the war, Guthrie traveled the country again, writing about what he saw. He focused on labor struggles and the rights of workers. He married two more times and had five more children. However, Guthrie's career was cut short when he was struck with Huntington's chorea, the hereditary disease that earlier caused his mother's death. With the onset of symptoms he returned to New York and spent much of the rest of his life hospitalized at Creedmore State Hospital in Queens, New York. He managed to complete two books, American Folksong (1947) and Born to Win (1965), both of which included autobiographical writings, poems, and lyrics to many of his songs. However, he eventually lost all ability to write, because he could no longer hold a pencil.
"He wrote most every minute of everyday"
In 2000 Michael Majdie and Denise Matthews of the University of Oregon produced and directed the short film Roll On, Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the Bonneville Power Administration. While working for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) for one month in the summer of 1941, Guthrie wrote twenty-six songs in thirty days about the Columbia River valley and the people in the region. Guthrie's family and friends and the BPA employees who worked with him were interviewed for the film.
Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora and son Arlo, a singer and songwriter in his own right, provide insight into the writing habits of their father. In the film Nora explains, "His writing was drippings from a faucet that no one could turn off and he couldn't either—he wasn't that much in control of the situation that he could turn off his faucet—he kept writing till there was nothing more left in him to write." Arlo agrees, "He was a guy who wrote everyday of his life. He wrote most every minute of everyday.… If you left him alone at night after everybody was tired out—and this was not a man who was afraid to party either, he would be up there with the best of them drinking and a'singing—after everybody went to sleep he would be there writing.… Rolls of toilet paper, single spaced on both sides, went through the typewriter. Nothing was safe from the man. All the paper bags, all, everything that was paper that could be wrote on, he wrote on. There was no scrap, no napkin from the table, no piece of paper...nothing was safe from him.
"I think only somebody who had that kind of training [Woody Guthrie's years of experience] could sit down and take a project of this size [the BPA project] and nature in those times and be able to [snaps his fingers] just nail it. That's all—just write it down like it was everyday 'cause that's what he was doing everyday. Couldn't be a part-time writer, part-time thinker, or part-time anything and in one month write songs that have lines like the ones that are in these songs. Just can't do it. You got to have discipline or you've got to be crazy and he was both."
Guthrie's music inspired a generation of folksingers in the 1950s and 1960s, when his ballads were again popular. In 1966 he received a Conservation Service Award from Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall for raising public awareness of the need to care for the land. Guthrie died in 1967 at the age of fifty-five. In 1999 the Smithsonian Institution created an exhibit about Woody Guthrie, which, like Guthrie himself, traveled around the country for all to enjoy.
For More Information
gold, john r. "from 'dust storm disaster' to 'pastures of plenty': woody guthrie and landscapes of the american depression." in the place of music, edited by andrew leyshon, david matless, and george revill. new york, ny: guildon press, 1998, pp. 249–268.
guthrie, woody. bound for glory. new york, ny: e. p. dutton, 1970.
guthrie, woody. woody guthrie songs. fort lauderdale, fl: tro song-ways service, 1992.
klein, joe. woody guthrie: a life. new york, ny: ballantine books, 1986.
santelli, robert, and emily davidson, eds. hard travelin': the life andlegacy of woody guthrie. hanover, nh: university press of new england, 1999.
bound for glory: a tribute to woody guthrie.http://www.themomi.org/museum/guthrie/index.html (accessed on september 8, 2002).
majdie, michael, and denise matthews (producers). roll on, columbia:woody guthrie and the bonneville power administration. university of oregon, 2000. short film.
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.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (July 14, 1912–October 3, 1967) was arguably the most influential songwriter and performer in twentieth-century American folk music. As the first major artist to combine traditional American folk melodies with lyrics about contemporary political, social, and personal concerns, Guthrie left behind an unparalleled collection of ballads and populist anthems. Both his music and performing style have continued to influence artists long after his death.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. As a youth, he saw his family disintegrate in a series of personal and financial tragedies. During his adolescent years, he worked odd jobs and learned the guitar in his spare time. When the dust storms of 1935 hit the area, Guthrie took his guitar and drifted, hitchhiked, and hopped freight trains, eventually joining other "Okie" refugees in California. Already a keen observer of the world, Guthrie became radically politicized by what he saw and experienced there. Empathizing with the migrant orchard workers, union organizers, and other victims of greed and social injustice, Guthrie channeled his populist patriotism and moral outrage into songwriting. Singing his plainspoken lyrics in high nasally vocals to the tune of simple chords and melodies derived from traditional Appalachian folk songs, Guthrie established a mythic voice for beaten-down Americans. Radio performances from Los Angeles won Guthrie wide renown, especially with intellectuals and activists associated with the Popular Front and the Communist Party.
In 1939 Guthrie moved to New York City, where he became more active in left-wing politics, writing articles for Communist newspapers and penning some of his best-known songs, including "God Blessed America" (usually known as "This Land Is Your Land"). A passionate antifascist and champion of the Popular Front, Guthrie felt dismayed and conflicted by the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939. But the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union removed any doubts that he had about the need for America to enter World War II. Guthrie emblazoned his guitar with the slogan, "This Machine Kills Fascists," and he contributed to the war effort not only with patriotic ballads like "Reuben James," but by serving for two years in the American merchant marine. Upon returning, he resumed his songwriting and toured in the late 1940s with his protégé Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers. Cold War blacklists and a debilitating affliction with Huntington's chorea limited Guthrie's activities in his later years, but in the 1960s a new generation of songwriters and performers revived both his songs and his spirit with their own contemporary folk music.
A prolific songwriter with far more versatility than his common image suggests, Guthrie's subjects ranged from political corruption and hunger to romantic love and children's songs. But he has always been best known for his Dust Bowl ballads and common-man anthems written in the late 1930s and first recorded in 1940 by folklorist Alan Lomax. These included songs about poverty and deprivation ("Dust Bowl Blues" and "I Ain't Got No Home"), greed and intolerance ("Do Re Mi" and "Vigilante Man"), and odes to mythical heroes and outlaws ("Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Tom Joad"). The first few verses of his most famous composition, commonly known as "This Land Is Your Land," rank among America's most recognizable anthems. Less well known are the rest of the original lyrics, which include reference to the traveling narrator being obstructed by a sign reading "Private Property" and witnessing hungry people waiting outside a relief office.
A figure of towering importance in the history of both folk and popular music, Woody Guthrie helped to revolutionize what songs could mean in American culture. His 1988 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speaks to a legacy that transcends the boundaries of Depression-era topical songs. The moral authority and personal integrity at the heart of Guthrie's music truly make him a hero for all artists who have aspired to move the conscience and soul of an audience with a song.
Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. 1943.
Guthrie, Woody. Dust Bowl Ballads (sound recording). 1995.
Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. 1980.
Lomax, Alan, comp., and Pete Seeger, ed. Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. 1967.
Santelli, Robert, and Emily Davidson, eds. Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie. 1999.
Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. Available at: http://www.woodyguthrie.org
Bradford W. Wright
Woody Guthrie was a folk singer whose music told the stories of the migrant and agricultural workers during America's Great Depression (1929–41), a period of high unemployment that began with the stock market crash in 1929. Of the hundreds of songs he wrote and recorded, he is probably best known for “This Land Is Your Land,” which he wrote in 1940 and recorded in 1944.
Born on July 14, 1912, Guthrie's full name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and he spent his childhood in various regions of Oklahoma and Texas . He married his best friend's sister in 1933 at the age of twenty-one. Always restless, Guthrie took to the road in search of work. He found a job in Los Angeles, California , as part of a singing duo, and his popularity grew along with his political awareness.
Americans across the nation could relate to the songs Guthrie wrote and performed. He often sang about the plight of the migrant workers who had left the Dust Bowl , a large area covering several Great Plains states that suffered severe drought and relentless dust storms during the 1930s.
Guthrie released his first record album in 1940. Called Dust Bowl Ballads, its songs described the woes of farm labor employees and the exploits of the Oklahoma outlaw.
Guthrie's reputation as a spokesman for the poor rural population was reinforced through his friendship with another politically active folk singer, Pete Seeger (1919–). Together the two men joined a protest group called the Almanac Singers. With folklorist Alan Lomax (1915–2002), who interviewed and recorded numerous musicians, they recorded a collection of folk songs in 1967.
As a solo artist, Guthrie wrote and performed protest songs throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He also began writing songs for children. In all his music, Guthrie expressed his belief in justice, and he was convinced that it would prevail if people would be moved to action. He saw his role in music as that of a crusader for the oppressed and less fortunate.
Guthrie's influence on folk music was evident from the 1950s onward. Folk musician Bob Dylan (1941–) was a huge fan of Guthrie's, and he visited him in 1961 as Guthrie was dying from a genetic disorder called Huntington's disease, which he had inherited from his mother and passed along to two of his children. Guthrie's influence on Dylan can be heard particularly on the younger musician's early albums. Other modern musicians who have been influenced by Guthrie include rock singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen (1949–), country singer Emmylou Harris (1947–), and Irish rock band U2.
Guthrie died in 1967, and his son Arlo (1947–) continued in his footsteps as a folk singer. In 1998, a new collection of the elder Guthrie's songs was released and contained lyrics written by him in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By the time he died, Guthrie had married three times and had recorded more than one thousand songs. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.