Woody Guthrie

From New World Encyclopedia

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie in 1943 with guitar labeled "This machine kills fascists"
Woody Guthrie in 1943 with guitar labeled
"This machine kills fascists"
Background information
Birth name Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Born July 14, 1912
Okemah, Oklahoma, USA
Origin Los Angeles, California, United States
Died October 3 1967 (aged 55)
New York City, New York, USA
Genre(s) Folk
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter
Years active 1930s – 1956

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (July 14, 1912 - October 3, 1967) was a prolific American song writer and folk musician who influenced the entire postwar development of American folk music. He was a first-hand observer and survivor of the economic and environmental hardships of the Dust Bowl, which shook the Great Plains states during the Great Depression.

Guthrie's body of music consists of hundreds of songs, ballads and improvised works that have been performed by generations of folk, country, pop, and rock artists. After his discovery and first recordings by the American folklorist Alan Lomax, Guthrie gained increasing stature as a voice of protest to industrialization, as well as a lyricist of traditional American life. The breadth of his song topics ranged from political and traditional songs to children's songs. He is perhaps best known for his song, "This Land Is Your Land," now an anthem of American life sung in churches, schools, and community events across the nation.

Guthrie traveled across America many times, learning traditional songs and blues and creating new folk songs of working people. His travels frequently followed the movement of migrant workers across the Great Plains and in California. He was associated with and regularly performed for, but was never a member of, several communist groups in the U.S. throughout his life.[1] He had a great many odd jobs, such as sign painter, radio host, fruit picker, sailor, dish-washer, and soldier, experiences he also adapted into his compositions.

Married three times, Guthrie fathered eight children, including folk musician Arlo Guthrie, and is the grandfather of musician Sarah Lee Guthrie. Later in life, he developed symptoms of Huntington's disease, a degenerative neurological affliction, and eventually died from complications of this fatal congenital disease. In spite of his illness, during his later years, he served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, most importantly as a mentor to young Bob Dylan.[2]


Early life

Woody Guthrie's birthplace
Okfuskee County, OK

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.


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."

Woody Guthrie, 1943

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]


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.


Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I'm a-sayin' an' a-many times more.
I'm a-singin' you the song, but I can't sing enough,
'Cause there's not many men that done the things that you've done. (from "Song to Woody," Bob Dylan, 1962)

Woodie Guthrie is among the most influential song writers and folk artists of the twentieth century, a mentor and in some respects a role model for generations of later folk artists. In the tradition of earlier itinerant blues men and country singers, Guthrie drew upon raw experience on the road, of the hardships of working people, the unemployed, and the marginalized. Guthrie's most famous protege, Bob Dylan, indeed invented elaborate fictions of an itinerant life modeled after Woody when he first appeared on the New York folk scene. Others, notably Rambin' Jack Eliot, consciously mimicked Guthrie by adopting a "rambling" lifestyle to strive for artistic authenticity.

Guthrie wrote more than three thousand songs and thousands of pages of unpublished poems and prose.[28] But his posthumous influence overshadows his stature during his lifetime. "Decades after Guthrie's death, wrote critic William Ruhlmann, "his ragamuffin image, the blue-jean-wearing Everyman with a guitar on his back, had become an American archetype, and his songs, in some cases benignly reinterpreted, had become a permanent part of the American consciousness, whether it was a parent and child singing 'Put Your Finger in the Air' without any idea who wrote it, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir thundering 'This Land Is Your Land,' ignorant of its original socialist intent. In this sense, he had proved himself a true folk artist, one whose creations had passed into the culture and seemed always to have been there."[29] According to critic Clifton Fadiman, writing in 1943, Woody Guthrie had "an influence on America as strong as Walt Whitman;" Guthrie and his songs are "a national possession, like Yellowstone and Yosemite."[30]

Guthrie's death also raised awareness about Huntington's Disease. Guthrie's condition was misdiagnosed and proper treatment delayed because little was known about the disease at the time. In 1967 his ex-wife, Marjorie Guthrie, helped found the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease, which became the Huntington's Disease Society of America.

A year before Guthrie died he was given the Conservation Service Award by the U.S. Department of the Interior because of his love and kinship to the land that is contained in so many of his songs and writings.[31] A statue honoring Guthrie was erected in Memorial Park on Main Street in his hometown of Okemah, which also hosts the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each summer. In 1988, Guthrie was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2000 he was posthumously honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.


  1. Loyno, Woody Guthrie. Retrieved January 15, 2009.
  2. William Addams Reitwiesner, "Guthrie Family Ancestry," TIME magazine. Retrieved April 10, 2007.
  3. Reitwiesner, "Guthrie Family Ancestry." Retrieved April 10, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Woody Guthrie Official Website, Biography. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2007
  5. XRoads, Woody Guthrie. Retrieved September 26, 2007.
  6. Klein, 90-92, 103-112
  7. Klein, 82-84, 121, 214.
  8. David Corn, "Jerusalem Calling," The Nation. Retrieved January 15, 2009.
  9. Klein, 144.
  10. Klein, 287, 375.
  11. Klein, 195-196, 202, 205, 212.
  12. Klein, 192-193, 195-231.
  13. Klein, 213-222.
  14. Americans who tell the Truth, "Woody Guthrie Biography: Folksinger and writer, 1912—1967." Retrieved October 12, 2008.
  15. Klein, 277-280, 287-291.
  16. Jim Longhi, Woody, Cisco and Me (New York: Random House, 1997. ISBN 0252022769).
  17. Christine A. Spivey, "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land: Folk Music, Communism, and the Red Scare as a Part of the American Landscape," Student History Journals, Loyola University. Retrieved October 12, 2008.
  18. Klein, 302-303.
  19. Klein, 312.
  20. Klein, 344-351.
  21. Klein, 417.
  22. Klein, 364-365.
  23. Time Magazine, "Let Us Now Praise Little Men." Retrieved January 15, 2009.
  24. Reitwiesner, "Guthrie Family Ancestry." Retrieved July 17, 2007.
  25. Klein, 388-394, 399.
  26. Klein, 418-419
  27. Klein, 460.
  28. International HD Association Dommerholt. Retrieved January 15, 2009.
  29. William Ruhlman, "Woody Guthrie," Answers.com, Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  30. Ibid
  31. International HD Association, HD. Retrieved October 12, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cray, Ed. Ramblin' man: the life and times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. ISBN 0393047598.
  • Christensen, Bonnie. Woody Guthrie: poet of the people. New York: Knopf, 2001. ISBN 0375811133.
  • Guthrie, Woody. Guthrie Songs. New York, 1972.
  • Guthrie, Woody. Bound for Glory. NY: E. P. Dutton, 1968. OCLC 449124.
  • Guthrie, Woody. Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait. New York, 1990.
  • Guthrie, Woody, and Marjorie Guthrie. Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. ISBN 0060202823.
  • Jackson, Mark Allan. Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie. University Press of Mississippi.
  • Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: Random House, 1980. ISBN 0385333854.
  • Longhi, Jim. Woody, Cisco and Me. New York: Random House, 1997. ISBN 0252022769.
  • Neimark, Anne. There Ain't Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: The Life of Woody Guthrie. Atheneum, 2002. ISBN 0689833695.
  • Partridge, Elizabeth. This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie. New York: Viking, 2002. ISBN 0670035351.

External links

All links retrieved May 17, 2023.


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