Woody Guthrie

1912 – 1931 Okemah, Oklahoma
1931 – 1937 The Great Dust Bowl Years
1937 – 1940 KFVD Radio Years
1940 – 1941 New York City
1941 – Columbia River
1942 – 1945 World War II
1946 – 1954 Coney Island
1954 – 1967 Huntington’s Disease

Okemah, Oklahoma

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14th, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the second son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. Charles was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician. There was music in the Guthrie household. He learned western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes from his father and a love for singing to express himself from his mother.

His early years in Oklahoma could not be described as warm and nurturing.  Woody lost his older sister Clara to an accident. His mother suffered mental problems, was institutionalized and died young. The family ultimately went bankrupt. Woody witnessed the effects of stress and tragedy on his father and siblings and the ripple effects on those around them. If nothing else, he learned how to bear witness: to watch, to listen and to try to understand.

In 1920, oil was discovered nearby in Okemah. The area was transformed overnight into an “oil boom” town, bringing in thousands of workers, gamblers and hustlers. The oil flow only lasted a few years and as quickly as the town rose, it fell – leaving its inhabitants “busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted.” Woody was there to see it all and to experience the wild array of characters. Apparently he liked it. He liked being with people, experiencing their differences, socializing and getting to know them. Woody began to formulate a language that could bridge their differences and express their common concerns. He headed out on the open road to experience more.

The Great Dust Bowl Years 1931–1937  Pampa, Texas

At age 19, Woody headed for Texas. He met Mary Jennings, the younger sister of a friend and musician, Matt Jennings. They lived in the panhandle town of Pampa. Following a reasonable courtship, Woody and Mary were married in 1933 and had three children, Gwen, Sue and Bill.

Woody joined Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker to form The Corn Cob Trio. The name changed shortly to The Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band.

Woody seemed to have a knack for landing in difficult circumstances. The crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression making it hard for anyone to support a family. To make matters worse, poor agricultural practices brought the dust storms to the Great Plains in 1935. Drought and dust forced thousands of farmers and workers in Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia to head west in search of work. Encouraging his family to stay in Pampa, Woody headed down Route 66 looking for some means of support.

Woody traveled by freight train, hitchhiking and walking to get to California. He took any job he could find for bed and food, Woody painted signs and played guitar and sang in saloons along the way. Strangely enough, the lifestyle agreed with him. It would not be the last time he took to the road.

KFVD Radio Years 1937–1940 Los Angeles, California

By the time he reached California in 1937, The people of California weren’t interested in absorbing any more refugees from the mid-west. A farmer who had lost everything and was trying to enter California at the time was likely to experience hatred, scorn and violence from residents. Woody was there.

Woody eventually landed a job in Los Angeles Woody on KFVD radio, singing “old-time” traditional songs as well as some his original works. Together with Maxine Crissman, aka “Lefty Lou,” Woody began to attract some public attention. His songs seemed to resonate with the thousands of Okies stuck in migrant camps. Woody’s radio program, in an entertaining way, provided them a nostalgic sense of home.

They weren’t just songs. They began to act as the voice of the disenfranchised. By his music, Woody discovered he could publicly raise awareness of social issues and acts of irony or injustice. Before too long, his songs spanned topics of corruption to the compassion and humanism of Jesus Christ. Songs measured the justice of banks taking away homes vs. the outlaws like Pretty Boy Floyd leaving stolen money to save people’s farms. Songs served union organizers fighting for the rights of migrant workers. Woody established himself as a voice for fairness, truth and justice.

Woody’s songs carefully maintained an outside observer’s point of view. This role was essential to the political and social structure of his lyrics: “I Ain’t Got No Home”, “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”, “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”, “Tom Joad” and “Hard Travelin’”; He was watching from a distance, bearing witness.

1940-1941 New York City

In 1940 Woody found himself in New York City. War was brewing in Europe and New York was teaming with artists, painters and progressive intellectuals who quickly embraced him. Woody was easily viewed as genuine, down-home and experienced. He had witnessed first-hand some of the hardest living of the previous decade.

Folklorist Alan Lomax found and recorded Woody in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Woody also recorded Dust Bowl Ballads for RCA Victor, his first album of original songs. Throughout the 1940s he continued to record discs for Moses Asch (founder of Folkways Records). These recordings continue to be researched by songwriters in all forms of music today.

At that time, Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, and others were in New York City and became friends with Woody. Cross-pollination was inevitable. Forming a loosely knit group called The Almanac Singers, they took up social causes such as union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening the Communist Party, peace, and fighting for what they believed. Woody became one of the prominent songwriters for the Almanac Singers.

The Almanacs helped to spread folk music. As it became more widely known, it gained commercial viability as popular music. A decade later, original members of the Almanacs would re-form as the Weavers. It was through their popularity that Woody’s songs would become known to the larger public.

With increasing popularity, prosperity and critical success from public performances, recordings, and his own radio show, Woody could finally afford to bring his family to join him in New York.

Columbia River, 1941 – Portland, Oregon

Despite success, Woody became increasingly disillusioned with New York’s radio and entertainment industry. He wrote: “I got disgusted with the whole sissified and nervous rules of censorship on all my songs and ballads, and drove off down the road across the Southern States again.”

Woody headed to Portland, Oregon where a documentary film project about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam sought to use his songwriting talent. The Bonneville Power Authority placed Woody on the Federal payroll for a month and there he composed the Columbia River Songs, another remarkable collection of songs that include “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done.”

When his contract ran out, Woody moved his family back to Pampa, Texas but quickly began to yearn for the political and artistic environment of New York City and his radio work. The constant traveling, performing and growing interest with progressive politics helped bring about the end of his first marriage. He hitchhiked his way back to New York.

World War II 1942–1945 New York City, New York

In New York, Woody met a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company named Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia. They shared similar humanist ideals and activist politics. Woody and Marjorie were married in 1945 and had four children: Cathy, (who died at age 4 in a tragic home fire), Arlo, Joady, and Nora Lee.

This relationship provided Woody a level of domestic stability and encouragement which he had not known. He became even more productive as a songwriter, painter, poet and author. His first novel, ‘Bound for Glory’, a semi-autobiographical account of his Dust Bowl years was published in 1943 to critical acclaim.

During World War II Woody served as a mess man and dishwasher in both the Merchant Marine and the Army. He shipped out to sea on several occasions with his buddies Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi. Woody’s tendency to write songs, tell stories and make drawings continued unabated. He composed hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war, and historic ballads to rally the troops, such as “All You Fascists Bound To Lose”, “Talking Merchant Marine,” and “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” He began to work on a second novel ‘Sea Porpoise’ and was enlisted by the army to write songs about the dangers of venereal diseases.

Coney Island 1946–1954 New York

In 1946 the Guthrie family settled in Coney Island. It was during this period that Woody composed and recorded Songs to Grow On For Mother and Child and Work Songs To Grow On, considered children’s classics.

Woody’s unique approach was to write songs that dealt with topics important to children written in language used by children such as friendship: “Don’t You Push Me Down”, family: “Ship In The Sky”, community: “Howdy Doo”, chores: “Pick It Up”, personal responsibility: “Cleano” and just plain fun: “Riding In My Car”.

During these years, Woody was exposed to Coney Island’s Jewish community through his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet. Inspired by this new relationship, he wrote a remarkable series of songs reflecting Jewish culture, such as “Hanukah Dance,” “The Many and The Few” and “Mermaid’s Avenue.”

Toward the late 1940s, Woody’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic, moody and violent, creating tensions in his personal and professional life. He was beginning to show symptoms of a rare, neurological disease, Huntington’s Chorea, a hereditary, degenerative disease that gradually robbed him of his health, talents and abilities. At the time, little was known about Huntington’s Chorea. It was later discovered to be the same disease which thirty years earlier had caused his mother’s institutionalization and eventual death. Shaken by inexplicable volatile physical and emotional symptoms, Woody left his family once again, taking off for California with his young protégé, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

In California, Guthrie lived in a compound owned by Will Geer with blacklisted singers and actors waiting out the political climate for better times. Woody met Anneke Van Kirk, a young woman who became his third wife and with whom they had a daughter, Lorina.

1954-1967 Huntington’s Disease

The Cold War of the early 1950s saw a rise in anti-Communist sentiments. Leftist and progressive-minded Americans were subjected to Red scare tactics such as “blacklisting”. Many people, particularly in the arts and entertainment fields, either lost their jobs or were prevented from continuing to work in their chosen careers. The Weavers, along with Woody, Pete Seeger and others from their circle, were targeted for their activist stances on such issues as the right to unionize, equal rights, and free speech.

Woody headed south to Florida, where friend and fellow activist Stetson Kennedy offered blacklisted artists living space on his property. While in the South at Kennedy’s “Beluthahatchee”, Woody worked on a third novel: ‘Seeds of Man’ and composed songs inspired by a heightened awareness of racial and environmental issues.

Becoming more and more unpredictable during a final series of road trips, Woody eventually returned to New York with Anneke, where he was hospitalized several times. Mistakenly diagnosed and treated for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, his symptoms kept worsening and his physical condition deteriorated. Picked up for “vagrancy” in New Jersey in 1954, he was admitted into the nearby Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, where he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, the incurable degenerative nerve disorder now known as Huntington’s Disease or HD.

During these years, Marjorie Guthrie, family and friends continued to visit and care for him. A new generation of musicians took an interest in folk music bringing it into the mainstream as yet another folk music revival. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Ochs, and many other young folksingers visited Woody in the hospital, bringing along their guitars and their songs to play for him, perhaps even to thank him.

Woody Guthrie died on October 3rd, 1967 while at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York. His ashes were sprinkled into the waters off of Coney Island’s shore.

A month later, on Thanksgiving 1967, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie released his first commercial recording of “Alice’s Restaurant”, which was to become the iconic anti-war anthem for the next generation.

In his lifetime, Woody Guthrie wrote nearly 3,000 song lyrics, published two novels, created artworks, authored numerous published and unpublished manuscripts, poems, prose, and plays and hundreds of letters and news articles which are housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City. Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song “This Land Is Your Land”.

Special thanks to the Woody Guthrie Web Site for the biographical information
Edited and expanded by Leonard Wyeth

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© 2008, Leonard Wyeth