Woody Guthrie Biography

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.

Woody Guthrie’s Early Life

Named after President Woodrow Wilson, Woody was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. Okemah was one of the first oil boom towns and was bursting with activity at the time of his birth. Okemah is in the heart of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, and near Boley, one of Oklahoma’s largest and most prosperous Black towns.

Although Okemah was a vibrant, bustling, and diverse city, that diversity did not mean equality for all members of the community. Woody did not emerge from the earth an enlightened human being; rather, he grew up in an era and in a region that actively promoted the mistreatment of non-Whites. Okemah was a “Sundown town” — a term that came from signs posted that people of color had to leave town by sundown — near an area called “Little Dixie.” His father was likely a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and young Woody absorbed the sounds of prejudice as well as the culturally diverse sounds around him.

At the Woody Guthrie Center, we share these truths about his background to show the potential we all have for change. As Woody traveled and broadened his world view, he turned away from those racist ideas and became one of our first and most vocal advocates for civil rights. His writings in the early 1940s and ’50s are enlightened, powerful messages of equality and could have easily been written by activists during the American civil rights movement.

Tragedy by Fire

Fires were a constant issue in Woody’s life. When he was 6, his older sister, Clara, died from burns suffered in a house fire. Several years later, his father, Charlie, was seriously injured in another house fire. As a result, Woody’s father moved to Pampa, Texas, to be nursed back to health in his brother’s home, while Woody’s mother, Nora, was committed to a mental institution due to her battle with Huntington’s disease.

Fire also plagued Woody in his adult life. Cathy, his first daughter from his second marriage, was burned in an apartment fire when she was 4 and died from her injuries. When Huntington’s disease started affecting Woody himself, he suffered severe burns to his arm.

Biography

Early life

Woodrow “Woody” Guthrie was the second son born to Nora Belle Tanner Sherman and Charles Edward Guthrie. He was born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912. [3] His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, who was elected President of the United States the same year Guthrie was born.

His father was a land speculator, a cowboy, and a politician who made a living following the oil booms. [4] Woody’s father taught his son Western songs, Indian songs and even some Scottish tunes. His mother, Kansas born, was also known to be musically inclined, giving Woody an early exposure to music.

Guthrie had a tumultuous early life. His older sister died in a fire when he was only seven years old, and his father was burned in a separate fire. His mother was committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, around 1923 when Woody was only about 11 years old. There, she lived and later died of Huntington’s disease a genetic disease that was passed down to her son Woody. [4]

After Guthrie’s mother was hospitalized, his father followed an oil boom to west Texas, leaving his two sons in Oklahoma. So it was at the young age of about 12, Woody set off on his own. He lived for a couple of years with a large family of ten in a two-room house. Then at 15 years old, according to his autobiography, Bound for Glory, Woody found odd jobs such as shining shoes, or washing spittoons.

When Woody was 16 he left for the Gulf of Mexico where he worked in the fields, hoeing and picking fruits. He did yard work, moved garbage cans and took jobs helping carpenters and well drillers. [4] Woody joined his father in Pampa, Texas, in 1926. It was here, while painting signs, that one of his uncles bought him a guitar and taught him to play.

Dust Bowl traveling era

While in Texas, at age 21, he met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children. He used his musical talents to earn money as a street musician and by doing small gigs. Woody’s constant traveling and moving of the family wore down Mary’s resolve. Their relationship was always strained and they were eventually divorced.

About this life in the Dust Bowl Woody later wrote,

And there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about…I never did make up any songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky, but at first it was funny songs or songs about what all’s wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in the country was thinking. And this has held me ever since. [5]

He and his family left Texas during the Dust Bowl era, following the Okies to California. The poverty Woody saw on these early trips affected him greatly, and many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by the working class.

Careers

In the late 1930s, Guthrie achieved fame in Los Angeles, California, with radio partner Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman as a broadcast performer of “hillbilly” music and traditional folk music. [6] While appearing on KFVD, a commercial radio station owned by a populist-minded New Deal Democrat, Guthrie also began to write and perform some of the protest songs that would eventually end up on Dust Bowl Ballads. In 1939, Guthrie moved to New York City and was embraced by its leftist folk music community. He also made perhaps his first real recordings: several hours of conversation and songs, 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. He began writing his autobiography, Bound for Glory, which was completed and published in 1943. The Bound for Glory adapted (film) was released in 1967. He frequently donated money made from his music gigs and busking to help various peoples and causes.

A lifelong socialist and trade unionist, he contributed a regular column to the Daily Worker and People’s World newspapers. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World or (Wobblies) Union for some years. [7] Although Guthrie is frequently associated with leftist or Socialist politics, 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.” [8]

In February 1940, Guthrie penned his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land.” Originally titled “God Blessed America,” it was inspired in part by his experiences during a cross-country trip and in part by his distaste for the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America,” which he considered unrealistic and complacent (and he was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio). [9] The melody is based on the gospel song “When the World’s on Fire,” best known as sung by the country group The Carter Family around 1930. Guthrie protested class inequality in the final verses:

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple; 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.” [In another version, the sign reads “Private Property”] But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing! That side was made for you and me.

These verses were often omitted in subsequent recordings, sometimes by Guthrie himself. 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. [10]

Under the impression that a documentary of an influential American songwriter was to be created, Guthrie moved to the Pacific northwest. The film was never made, but some good did come of the move. In May 1941, Guthrie was commissioned by the United States Department of the Interior and its Bonneville Power Administration to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of the federal dams. [11] The best known of these are “Roll On Columbia” and “Grand Coulee Dam.”

Following the conclusion of the project, in 1941, Guthrie moved to New York, leaving his family behind. He began corresponding with Pete Seeger about his newly formed folk-protest group, the Almanac Singers. [12] The singers originally worked out of a loft in New York City hosting regular concerts. They eventually outgrew this space and everyone moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village. [13] Guthrie at first helped write and sing what the Almanacs termed “peace” songs (mostly pro-communist, pro-isolationist), but after America’s entry into World War II the focus quickly became anti-fascist. [14]

World War II years

Woody unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. Army to avoid the draft, believing his anti-fascist songs and poems were the best use of his talents in the war. When this failed, pressured by his friend Cisco Houston, Guthrie along with Jim Longhi joined the United States Merchant Marine. [15] Woody served as a mess man and dish washer, but would frequently entertain and keep up the spirits of the crew and troops on the trans-Atlantic voyages. Jim Longhi would later write about these experiences in his book Woody, Cisco and Me. [16] It offers a rare first hand account of Guthrie during this period.

Conservatives frequently criticized the ostensibly Communist leanings of Guthrie’s work; although he was never actually a member of the party, he did express sympathy towards the party many times, which was not unusual among 1930s folk singers. [17] Guthrie’s association with communism eventually rendered him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine in 1945, [18] causing him to be drafted into the U.S. Army near the end of the war.

It was at this time Woody met his future second wife Marjorie Mazia. Woody and Marjorie were married while he was on furlough from the Army. [19] After his discharge, they moved into a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, and together had four children—including Cathy, a daughter who died at age four in a fire, sending him into a serious depression. [20] Woody and Marjorie’s other children were named Joady, Nora and Arlo. Later, Arlo became a famous singer-songwriter in his own right. 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 his son was about nine years old.

Folk revival

In the mid-1940s Guthrie, a prolific folk musician, met up with Moses “Moe” Asch of Folkways Records who was the first to record “This Land Is Your Land.” Folkways also recorded “Worried Man Blues” and hundreds of others of Guthrie’s songs over the next few years. These songs were later released in several pressings by Folkways and Stinson Records. (They had joint distribution rights to the recordings). [21]

The 1948 plane crash carrying 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California, on their way to be deported back to Mexico inspired the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos).” [22] This song helped cultivate sentiment for minority rights through folk music.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people inspired by Woody, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and other folk singers had become more politically aware, following the tense 1950s climate. The American Folk Revival was beginning to take place, focused on the civil rights movement and Free Speech Movement whose concerns were current issues of personal freedoms.

Soon after learning of Woody’s whereabouts, these new-folk singers would regularly visit him in Brooklyn during the final years of his life, playing his own songs for him as well as their new ballads. [23] One of the first people to visit Woody was Bob Dylan, who idolized Guthrie.

By this point Woody’s Huntington’s disease heavily slurred his speech and altered his movements. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a Jewish New-Yorker who had adopted a cowboy lifestyle and had studied extensively with Woody, taught Dylan and Guthrie’s son Arlo much of Guthrie’s performance. When asked about this teaching, 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.'” [24]

Death

Already by the late l940s, Guthrie’s health had worsened and his behavior was extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses including alcoholism and schizophrenia, but was finally diagnosed to be suffering from Huntington’s disease in 1952, the genetic disorder that had caused the death of his mother. Upon his release from a California hospital, Marjorie Guthrie would not take him back, calling him a danger to the children’s well-being. [25]

While still in California, Guthrie lived in a compound owned by Will Geer and some other old folk singer types. He met his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk, and had another child, Lorina Lynn. The couple moved to Florida briefly, before eventually returning to New York in 1954. [26] Shortly after that, Anneke filed for divorce, citing the strain of caring for Woody. Anneke left New York and Lorina Lynn was adopted by friends of hers, but died at age 19. After that divorce, his former wife Marjorie, who had continued to keep tabs on Woody, returned to his life to care for him and assisted him as his condition worsened.

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. [27] Woody died of complications from Huntington’s on October 3, 1967. His ashes were sprinkled in the Atlantic Ocean.

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