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Woody Guthrie: The Folk Singer

by James HargroveMay 24, 2022, ,
Woody Guthrie: The Folk Singer

Folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie is considered one of the legends of American folk music.

Who Was Woody Guthrie?

There are more than 1,000 songs written by Woody Guthrie, which include "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Yuh)" and "Union Maid." Following his service in WWII, Guthrie continued to perform for workers and farmers. 

“This Land Is Your Land” became an unofficial anthem, as well as his most famous song. Guthrie’s autobiography, “Bound for Glory (1943)” was adapted for film in 1976. His son Arlo became a successful musician as well.

Early Life

In 1912, Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, the second child of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. The upcoming folk hero was born a few weeks after Woodrow Wilson became the Democratic presidential candidate in 1912. He later said at a concert, "My father was a hard, fist-fighting Woodrow Wilson Democrat, so Woodrow Wilson was my name."

Woody's parents both had musical interests, and they taught him young, a variety of folk songs that he learned to play on his guitar and harmonica. Early in his childhood, the budding musician suffered through tragedy and personal loss, which had a bleak impact on his future songs and provided him with a wry outlook on life.

Guthrie's short life was shaped by numerous tragedies, including the accidental death of his sister Clara, the fire that destroyed his family home, his father's financial collapse, and the hospitalization of his mother, who had Huntington's disease.

When Guthrie was only 14 years old, he and his siblings had to fend for themselves while their father worked in Texas to pay back his debt. In his teens, Guthrie began busking in the streets for money and food, developing his skill as a musician as well as the social conscience that would later define his music.

At the age of 19, Guthrie married his first wife, a woman named Mary Jennings, after he had moved to Texas to live with his father. They had three children together, Gwen, Sue, and Bill. 

Guthrie's family was hard hit by the Great Depression, and after the drought-stricken Great Plains turned into the Dust Bowl, he left his family in 1935 in order to join the thousands of "Okies" heading west for a better life. As with many other "Dust Bowl refugees," Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even literally sang for his supper.

In the hobo and migrant camps, Guthrie used his guitar and harmonica to sing, taking on the role of a voice for labor and other left-wing causes. His experiences in these hardscrabble times would serve as inspiration for Guthrie's songs and stories and provide material for his autobiography, "Bound for Glory." As a result of these years, Guthrie also developed a taste for the road that he would never quite lose.

Folk Revolutionary

Guthrie went to California in 1937, where he found a job with Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman in Los Angeles on KFVD as a folk music radio performer. They soon gained a loyal following among the disenfranchised Oklahomans living in migrant camps throughout California, and not long afterward, Guthrie included his populist sentiments in his songs.

The wanderlust of Woody Guthrie brought him to New York City in 1940, where he was warmly welcomed by left-wing artists, union organizers, and folk musicians. Guthrie's career flourished through collaboration with musicians such as Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Will Geer.

Besides being an activist for social causes, he helped establish folk music as a powerful force for change and a significant new commercial genre within the music industry. The success of Guthrie's songwriter career with the Almanac Singers launched him into the public eye, leading to even more critical acclaim.

Guthrie's marriage ended in 1943 due to the fame and hardships of the road that followed. It wasn't until a year later that he would record "This Land is Your Land," an enduring pop song that remains popular to this day and has been recognized as something of an alternative national anthem.

Amidst World War II, Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine and began creating music that sounded more antifascist than ever. (Guthrie is best known for his performances with the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists," written on his acoustic guitar.) 

When he was out on leave from the Merchant Marine, Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia. As soon as the war was over, the couple moved to Coney Island, New York, where they had four children: Cathy, Arlo, Joady, and Nora.

During this period of his life, the singer Guthrie produced his most critically-acclaimed music, frequently producing political anthems while also penning classic children's songs such as "Don't You Push Me Down," "Ship In The Sky," and "Howdi Doo."

Later Years And Death

At the end of the 1940s, Guthrie began to display symptoms of Huntington's Chorea, the disease that had killed his mother. Guthrie was profoundly shaken by the unpredictable physical and emotional symptoms he suffered. In order to handle the situation, he left his family and set out on the road with his protégé, Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

Upon arriving in California, Guthrie moved into a compound owned by activist and actor Will Geer, mainly populated with performers who had been blacklisted during the Red Scare during the early Cold War years. Soon after, Guthrie married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk, and had Lorina Lynn, his eighth child.

In the late 1950s, Guthrie's health continued to decline, and he was hospitalized until his death in 1967. His marriage to Van Kirk crumbled in the wake of his disease, and the couple eventually divorced.

Guthrie’s second wife, Marjorie Guthrie, and their children visited him regularly in the hospital during the last year of Guthrie's life, as did Guthrie's best-known heir in the folk music world, Bob Dylan.

Dylan traveled to New York City to find his idol, where Guthrie became close to the young singer. He later said of Guthrie's songs, "The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.”

Sadly, Guthrie passed away on October 3, 1967, due to complications from Huntington's Chorea, but his musical legacy remains a firmly rooted part of American history. Folk singers Guthrie influenced in the 1950s and 1960s helped bring about some of the most significant social changes of the century.

Guthrie was modest and was known for downplaying his creative ability despite his status as a folk hero. "I like to write about wherever I happen to be," he said at one time. "I just happened to be in the Dust Bowl, and because I was there and the dust was there, I thought, well, I'll write a song about it."

Would you like to know about the Mexican singer and songwriter Gloria Trevi? Read our blog to find out. 

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