Woody Guthrie

  January 01, 2022   Read time 4 min
Woody Guthrie
“This Land Is Your Land” has become the unofficial national anthem of the United States since the 1950s, often learned by students in public school and heard frequently at public functions.

But while the song is very familiar, itscomposer, Woody Guthrie, is hardly known, although he became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1998. By the 1960s he had become the prototype of the creative singer/songwriter, combining folk music and protest lyrics. He also penned catchy children’s songs, and his erratic lifestyle captivated a generation of restless young people, such as Bob Dylan. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. Charley Guthrie sold real estate and held local office, and the family was generally well off until the early 1920s. But hard times came, and then Nora Guthrie was permanently hospitalized because of Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary disease that would eventually incapacitate Woody. By his late teens Woody, a voracious reader and a budding artist and musician, was on his own. He married Mary Jennings in 1933 and their family quickly grew.

Always on the move, Woody relocated to Los Angeles in 1937 and soon launched a radio show with Maxine Crissman, who was best known as Lefty Lou. He had already begun writing songs, such as “Talking Dust Bowl” and “Oklahoma Hills,” usually borrowing his tunes from gospel or traditional songs, with the words based on his experiences or news stories. He began developing a local reputation as a folk performer and clever composer. As the Depression dragged on, Woody became politically radical, soon connecting with the local Communist Party. He moved to New York City in early 1940 and appeared in the gala fundraising “Grapes of Wrath Evening,” joining numerous local folk music activists: Alan and Bess Lomax, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Pete Seeger. Alan Lomax, head of the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library of Congress, soon had Woody recording hours of songs and stories for the Archive. He also appeared on Lomax’s two CBS radio shows, as well as Henrietta Yurchenco’s local folk program on WNYC; he even briefly had his own network show. During the busy year of 1940 he recorded two albums for Victor Records entitled Dust Bowl Ballads. While he continued to travel around the country, he did take some time to join the Almanac Singers, with Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays, who performed and recorded topical and traditional folk songs. He divorced Mary and later married Marjorie Mazia; together they had four children. His inventive autobiography, Bound for Glory, was published by Dutton in 1943, to generally positive reviews. Woody had already written “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940, as a political counter to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

In 1943, Woody joined the merchant marine with his close friends Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi; they survived three voyages carrying troops and cargo to Europe. In early 1945 he began recording on the Asch label, initiating a relationship with owner Moses “Moe” Asch that would result in numerous influential albums on what later became Folkways Records. Oddly, considering his age and numerous children, Woody was drafted and inducted into the army on May 7, 1945, the day Germany surrendered. He remained in camp until discharged in late December. He moved with Marjorie to Coney Island, where they would live until his hospitalization in the early 1950s. He continued to write songs at a rapid pace, as well as recording for Moe Asch, but his public fame had faded. He performed for various political causes and labor unions, but these opportunities were drying up by the late 1940s and left-wing politics was becoming increasingly unpopular. Guthrie disappeared from the national spotlight even before his permanent hospitalization by 1956, as he continued to physically deteriorate from Huntington’s disease. He died on October 3, 1967.

WhenWoody died, hislife and songs had already become a vital part of the developing folk music revival. Bob Dylan was highly influenced by Woody’s recordings and maverick lifestyle, and visited with him on his move to New York City in 1961. Within a few years Woody became the most important influence on the folk movement, as a songwriter and activist. The 1988 HBO video and companion CD, Folkways: A Vision Shared, paired Woody and Lead Belly in a tribute featuring U2, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Willie Nelson, demonstrating the reach of Woody’s and Lead Belly’s songs. Indeed, Springsteen and Dylan carried on Woody’s musical and political legacy, along with his son Arlo Guthrie. The British rocker Billy Bragg along with the rock group Wilco issued two albums of Woody’s previously unrecorded songs entitled Mermaid Avenue, which reached a broad audience. While his creative career was very short, spanning less than a decade, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, Woody’s musical legacy and influence has continued to expand since the 1960s through the ongoing release of recordings by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and numerous public events.

Write your comment