Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (July 14, 1912–October 3, 1967) was an American songwriter and folk musician. Guthrie's musical legacy consists of hundreds of songs, ballads and improvised works covering topics from political themes to traditional songs to children's songs. Guthrie performed continually throughout his life with his guitar frequently displaying the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists". Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song "This Land Is Your Land", which is regularly sung in American schools. Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress.
Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues songs. His songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression and he is known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." Guthrie was associated with, but never a member of, Communist groups in the United States throughout his life.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. He is the grandfather of musician Sarah Lee Guthrie. Guthrie died from complications of the degenerative neurologic affliction known as Huntington's Disease. In spite of his illness, during his later years 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.
Early life: 1912–1930
Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma to Nora Belle Sherman and Charles Edward Guthrie. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey, the Democratic candidate who was soon to be elected President of the United States. Charles Guthrie, known as Charley, was an industrious businessman, owning at one time up to 30 plots of land in Okfuskee county. Charley was also actively involved in Oklahoma politics and was a Democratic candidate for office in the county. The young Guthrie would often accompany his father when Charley made stump speeches in the area.
Guthrie's early family life included several tragic fires which caused the loss of their home in Okemah. His sister Clara died in an accidental coal oil fire when Guthrie was seven, and Guthrie's father was severely burned in a later coal oil fire. The circumstances of these fires, especially Charley's accident, remain unclear. It is not known whether they were in fact accidents or the result of actions by Guthrie's mother who, unknown to the Guthries at the time, was suffering from a degenerative neurological disease. Nora Guthrie was eventually committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, where she died in 1930. It is believed she was a victim of Huntington's Disease, which would later be the cause of her son's death. It is also suspected that Guthrie's maternal grandfather, George Sherman, suffered from the disease, due to circumstances surrounding his drowning death.
With Nora Guthrie institutionalized and Charley Guthrie living in Pampa, Texas working to repay his debts from unsuccessful real estate deals, Woody Guthrie and his siblings were on their own in Oklahoma and relied on their eldest brother, Roy Guthrie, for support. The fourteen year old Guthrie worked odd jobs around Okemah, bumming meals, and sometimes sleeping at the homes of family friends. According to one story, Guthrie made friends with an African-American blues harmonica player named "George", whom he would watch play at the man's shoe shine booth. Before long Guthrie bought his own harmonica and began playing along. He seemed to have a natural affinity for music and easily learned to "play by ear". He began to use his musical skills around town, playing a song for a sandwich or coins. Guthrie easily learned old Irish ballads and traditional songs from the parents of friends. Although Guthrie 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 also an avid reader and read books on a wide range of topics. Friends remember him reading constantly.
Eventually, Guthrie's father sent for his son to come to Texas where little would change for the now-aspiring musician. Guthrie, 18 years old, was reluctant to attend high school classes in Pampa and spent a lot of time learning songs by busking on the streets and reading at the library. He was growing as a musician, gaining practice by regularly playing at dances for his cousin Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle player. In addition, Guthrie spent much time at the library in Pampa's city hall and wrote a manuscript summarizing everything he had read on the basics of psychology. A librarian in Pampa shelved this manuscript under Guthrie's name, but it was later lost in a library reorganization.
1930s: Traveling Era
At age 19 Guthrie met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children. With the advent of the Dust Bowl era, Guthrie left Texas, leaving Mary behind, and 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.
In the late 1930s, Guthrie achieved fame in Los Angeles, California, 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 still living in Texas. While appearing on radio station KFVD, a commercial radio station owned by a populist-minded New Deal Democrat Frank Burke, Guthrie began to write and perform some of the protest songs that would eventually end up 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, 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 would remain Guthrie's lifelong friend, and helped Guthrie book benefit performances in the Communist circles in Southern California. Despite 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, however, noted as a fellow traveler, or an outsider who agrees with the platform of the party without being subject to party discipline. Though not a party member, Guthrie requested to write a column for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker. The column, titled "Woody Sez", appeared a total of 174 times from May 1939 to January 1940. The columns were not explicitly political, but rather were about current events that Guthrie observed and experienced. The columns were written in an exaggerated hillbilly dialect and usually included a small comic. The columns were later published as a collection after Guthrie's death. Steve Earle said of Woody, "I don't think of Woody Guthrie as a political writer. He was a writer who lived in very political times".
With the outbreak of World War II and the nonaggression pact the Soviet Union had signed with Germany in 1939 KFVD radio owners did not want its staff "spinning apologia" for the Soviet Union; both Robbin and Guthrie left the station. Without the daily radio show, prospects for employment diminished and Guthrie and his family returned to Pampa, Texas. Although Mary Guthrie was happy to return to Texas, the wanderlusting Guthrie soon after accepted Will Geer's invitation to come to New York City and headed east.
1940s: Building a Legacy
New York City
Arriving in New York, Guthrie, known as the Oklahoma cowboy, was embraced by its leftist folk music community and slept on a couch in Will Geer's apartment. Guthrie also made what were his first real recordings—several hours of conversation and songs that were recorded by 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 song was unrealistic and complacent. Partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for God Bless America, he penned his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land" in February 1940. It was titled "God Blessed America." The melody is based on the gospel song "Oh My Loving Brother", best known as "Little Darling, Pal of Mine", 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.". He protested class inequality in the final verses:
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;These verses were often omitted in subsequent recordings, sometimes by Guthrie. Though the song was written in 1940, it would be four years before it was recorded by Moses Asch in April 1944, and even longer until sheet music was produced and given to schools by Howie Richmond.
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing."
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In March 1940, Guthrie was invited to play at a benefit hosted by The Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers to raise money for Migrant Workers. John Steinbeck's book The Grapes of Wrath was quite popular. It was at this concert Guthrie met Pete Seeger and the two men became good friends. Later Seeger accompanied Guthrie back to Texas to meet other members of the Guthrie family and has recalled an awkward conversation with Mary Guthrie's mother in which she asked Seeger's help in persuading 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 left wing musician circle in New York at the time and Guthrie and Ledbetter were good friends after having busked together at bars in Harlem.
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 and eventually brought Mary and the children to New York, where the family lived 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 real hard to think of being a dad". Unfortunately for the newly relocated family, Guthrie quit after the seventh broadcast, claiming he had begun to feel the show was too restricting 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 to Washington in the Pacific northwest on the promise of a job. A documentary, directed by Gunther von Fritsch, was being created in support of the Bonneville Power Administration's building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River and needed a narrator. Supported by a recommendation from Alan Lomax, the original idea was to have Guthrie narrate the film and sing songs onscreen. The original project was projected to take one year to complete but when filmmakers became worried about the implications of casting such a political figure, Guthrie's role was minimized. He was hired instead for one month only by the Department of the Interior to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of the federal dams for the documentary's soundtrack. Although the film was never released in anything but a limited form, some good did come of the project. When Guthrie and a driver toured the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest, Guthrie said he "couldn't believe it, it's a paradise", and was creatively inspired. 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 eventually released as Columbia River Collection.
At the conclusion of the month in 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. Divorce was difficult with Mary being a member of the Catholic Church, but she reluctantly agreed in December 1943.
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 Almanacs Singers termed "peace" songs. After America's entry into World War II the topics of their songs became more specifically anti-fascist. 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 between 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 an air of authenticity to their work since Guthrie 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. Woody would routinely emphasize his working class image, reject songs he felt were not in the country blues vein he was familiar with, and would rarely contribute to household chores. House member Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, another Okie, would later recall that Woody, "loved people to think of him as a real working class person and not an intellectual". Guthrie contributed songwriting and authenticity in much the same capacity for Pete Seeger's post-Almanac Singers project People's Songs, a newsletter and booking organization for labor singers, founded in 1945.
Bound for Glory
Guthrie was a prolific writer, penning thousands of pages of unpublished poems and prose, including many written while living in New York City. After a recording session with Alan Lomax, Lomax suggested Guthrie write an autobiography; in Lomax's opinion, Guthrie's descriptions of growing up were some of the best accounts of American childhood that he had read. It was during this time that Guthrie met a dancer in New York who would become his second wife, Marjorie Mazia. 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, it included the adaptation of some of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads for the dance studio. He continued writing songs and, as Lomax had suggested, began work on his autobiography. The end product, Bound For Glory was completed in no small part due to the patient editing assistance of Mazia and was first published by E.P. Dutton in 1943. It is a vivid tale told in the artist's own 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: "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." A film adaptation of Bound for Glory was released in 1976.
The Asch Recordings
In 1944, Guthrie met Moses "Moe" Asch of Folkways Records, for whom he first recorded "This Land Is Your Land", and over the next few years recorded "Worried Man Blues", along with hundreds of other songs. These recordings would later be released by Folkways and Stinson Records who had joint distribution rights to the recordings. The Folkways recordings are still available today with the most complete series of these sessions, culled from dates with Asch, simply titled The Asch Recordings.
World War II Years
Guthrie believed performing his anti-fascist songs and poems at home were the best use of his talents; Guthrie lobbied the United States Army to accept him as a USO performer instead of in the draft. When Guthrie's attempts failed, his friend Cisco Houston, pressured Guthrie along with Jim Longhi to join the U.S. Merchant Marine. Guthrie served as a mess man and dish washer, and he frequently sang for the crew and troops to buoy the spirits on transatlantic voyages. Guthrie made attempts to write about his experience in the Merchant Marine but was never satisfied with the results. Longhi later wrote about these experiences in his book Woody, Cisco and Me. The book offers a rare first-hand account of Guthrie during his military service. In 1945, Guthrie's 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 named 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. Due to Guthrie's illness, Dylan and Guthrie's son Arlo would later claim that 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 worsening and his behavior becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), but in 1952 was finally diagnosed to be suffering from Huntington's Disease, the genetic disorder believed to have caused the death of his mother. Believing him to be a danger to their children, Marjorie suggested he return to California without her and they eventually divorced.
Upon his return to California, Guthrie lived in a compound owned by Will Geer with blacklisted singers and actors waiting out the political climate. As his health worsened he met and married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk, and they had a child, Lorina Lynn. The couple moved to Florida briefly, living in a bus on land owned by a friend. Guthrie's arm was hurt in a campfire accident when gasoline used to start the campfire exploded. Although in time he regained movement in the arm he was not able to play the guitar again. In 1954 the couple returned to New York. Shortly after that, Anneke filed for divorce, a result of the strain of caring for Guthrie. Anneke left New York, allowing friends to adopt Lorina Lynn. After the divorce, Guthrie's second wife Marjorie reentered his life. Marjorie cared for him and assisted him until his death.
Guthrie, increasingly unable to control his muscle movements, 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. Marjorie and the children visited Guthrie at Greystone every Sunday. They answered fan mail and played on the hospital grounds. Eventually a longtime fan of Guthrie invited the family to his nearby home for these Sunday visits lasting until Guthrie was moved to the Brooklyn State Hospital, which was closer to where Marjorie lived. Guthrie's illness was essentially untreated due to a lack of information about the disease at the time. However, his death helped raise awareness of the disease and led Marjorie to help found the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease, which became the Huntington's Disease Society of America. None of Guthrie's three remaining children with Marjorie have developed symptoms of Huntington's, but two of Mary Guthrie's children (Gwendolyn and Sue) were diagnosed with the disease. Both died at 41 years of age.
Folk Revival and Guthrie's Death
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people were inspired by folk singers including Guthrie. These "folk revivalists" became more politically aware in their music. 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. Pockets of folk singers were forming around the country in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Many of these musicians had heard of Guthrie, but one of the first to visit him in the Brooklyn State Hospital was Bob Dylan. Dylan idolized Guthrie, calling him his hero. Soon after learning of Guthrie's whereabouts, these new, young folk singers regularly visited him during the final years of his life, playing his own songs for him as well as their originals. Guthrie died of complications of Huntington's disease in 1967. By the time of his death, his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to them in part through Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, his ex-wife Marjorie and other new members of the folk revival, and his son Arlo. Since his death, artists have paid tribute to Guthrie by covering his songs or by dedicating songs to him. One of the first artists to do so was Scottish folk artist Donovan, who covered Guthrie's "Car, Car (Riding in My Car)" on his 1965 debut album What's Bin Did And What's Bin Hid. Bruce Springsteen also performed a cover of Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" on his live album "Live: 1975-85." In the introduction to the song, Springsteen referred to it as "about one of the most beautiful songs ever written."
Quoth Woody Guthrie:
"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing.
Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.
I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."