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 to a lesser extent Bob Dylan.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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 [sic] 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These lyrics were re-discovered by Nora Guthrie and were set to music by the Jewish Klezmer group The Klezmatics with the 2007 release "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" (JMG Records).
The Klezmatics also released "Wonder Wheel - Lyrics by Woody Guthrie" (JMG), an album of spiritual lyrics put to music that was composed by the band. It won the 2007 Best Contemporary World Music Album Grammy Award and was Produced by Danny Blume and mixed by Steve Rosenthal.
On January 20, 1968, three months following Guthrie's death, Harold Leventhal produced "A Tribute to Woody Guthrie" at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Performers included Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan and The Band, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta and others. Leventhal repeated the tribute on September 12, 1970 at the Hollywood Bowl. Recordings of the two concerts were eventually released as 2 LPs then later as one CD.
In September 1996 Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Case Western Reserve University cohosted Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, a 10-day conference of panel sessions, lectures, and concerts. The conference became the first in what would become the museum's annual American Music Masters Series conference. Highlights included Arlo Guthrie's keynote address, a Saturday night musical jamboree at Cleveland's Odeon Theater, and a Sunday night concert at Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra. Musicians performing over the course of the conference included Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, The Indigo Girls, Ellis Paul, Jimmy LaFave, Ani DiFranco, and others. In 1999, Wesleyan University Press published a collection of essays from the conference and DiFranco's record label, Righteous Babe, released a compilation of the Severance Hall concert, 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, in 2000.
From 1999 to 2002 the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service presented the traveling exhibit, "This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie". In collaboration with Nora Guthrie, the Smithsonian exhibition draws from rarely seen objects, illustrations, film footage, and recorded performances to reveal a complex man who was at once poet, musician, protester, idealist, itinerant hobo, and folk legend.
In 2003 Jimmy LaFave produced a Woody Guthrie tribute show called Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway. The ensemble show toured around the country and included a rotating cast of singer-songwriters individually performing Guthrie's songs. Interspersed between songs were Guthrie's philosophical writings read by a narrator. In addition to LaFave, members of the rotating cast included Ellis Paul, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Joel Rafael, husband-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's granddaughter) and Johnny Irion, Michael Fracasso, and The Burns Sisters. Oklahoma songwriter Bob Childers, sometimes called "the Dylan of the Dust", served as narrator. When word spread about the tour, performers began contacting LaFave, whose only prerequisite was to have an inspirational connection to Guthrie. Each artist chose the Guthrie songs that he or she would perform as part of the tribute. LaFave said, "It works because all the performers are Guthrie enthusiasts in some form". The inaugural performance of the Ribbon of Highway tour took place on February 5, 2003 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The abbreviated show was a featured segment of "Nashville Sings Woody", yet another tribute concert to commemorate the music of Woody Guthrie held during the Folk Alliance Conference. The cast of "Nashville Sings Woody", a benefit for the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, also included Arlo Guthrie, Marty Stuart, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Janis Ian, and others.
Woody and Marjorie Guthrie were honored at a musical celebration featuring Billy Bragg and the band Brad on October 17, 2007 at Webster Hall in New York City. Steve Earle also performed. The event was hosted by actor/activist Tim Robbins to benefit the Huntington¹s Disease Society of America to commemorate the organization's 40th Anniversary.
Although Guthrie's catalogue never brought him many awards while he was alive, in 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the same year his protégé Bob Dylan was inducted), and in 2000 he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1987 "Roll On Columbia" was chosen as the official Washington State Folk Song, and in 2001 Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" was chosen to be the official state folk song of Oklahoma.
On September 26, 1992, The Peace Abbey, a multi-faith retreat center located in Sherborn, Massachusetts, awarded Guthrie their Courage of Conscience Award for his social activism and artistry in song which conveyed the plight of the common person.
On June 26, 1998, as part of its Legends of American Music series, the United States Postal Service issued 45 million 32-cent stamps honoring folk musicians Huddie Ledbetter, Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Josh White. The four musicians were represented on sheets of 20 stamps.
In 2006, The Klezmatics set Jewish lyrics written by Guthrie to music. The resulting album, Wonder Wheel, won the Grammy award for best contemporary world music album.
On April 27, 2007, Guthrie was one of four Okemah natives inducted into Okemah's Hall of Fame during the town's Pioneer Day weekend of festivities.
On February 10, 2008, The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949, a rare live recording released in cooperation with the Woody Guthrie Foundation, was the recipient of a Grammy Award in the category Best Historical Album.
|1940||Dust Bowl Ballads||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1972||Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie||Vanguard|
|1987||Columbia River Collection||Rounder Records|
|1988||Folkways: The Original Vision (Woody and Leadbelly)||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1988||Library of Congress Recordings||Rounder Records|
|1989||Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1991||Cowboy Songs on Folkways||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1991||Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1992||Nursery Days||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1994||Long Ways to Travel: The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944–1949||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1996||Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1997||This Land Is Your Land, The Asch Recordings, Vol.1||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1997||Muleskinner Blues, The Asch Recordings, Vol.2||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1998||Hard Travelin', The Asch Recordings, Vol.3||Smithsonian Folkways|
|1999||Buffalo Skinners, The Asch Recordings, Vol.4||Smithsonian Folkways|
|2007||The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie In Performance 1949||Woody Guthrie Publications|