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The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie

Updated on April 14, 2017
Al Greenbaum profile image

Al is interested in the lives of songwriters who shaped folk and popular music in the twentieth century.

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie | Source

Fsamily Background

Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma to Nora and Charles Guthrie. The year before, it is alleged that Charles was involved in the lynching of two African-Americans an event that Woody wrote three songs about. In later interviews, Guthrie said his father was involved with the KKK.

The patriarch was a strong-willed Democrat not adverse to solving a problem with his fists. He acquired a bit of wealth in the land purchases and sales he made. From the proceeds of his land deals, Guthrie Sr. bought a large house for $7,000 – only to see it burn down the next day.

Nora Guthrie was a troubled soul. Her behaviour was erratic, and her relationship with her husband grew more unpredictable because of it. Two incidents stand out in the family history. The tales vary, but one story claims Woody’s sister, Clara, died in a coal-oil fire in the home. Charles was severely burned in a subsequent blaze in his bedroom. Some attribute both events to Nora, while others say they were both accidents. Nevertheless, the mother grew more and more volatile in her actions until she had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, a disease that brings on early dementia and violent, erratic episodes. This affliction haunted Woody Guthrie for the rest of his life.

When oil was found in Oklahoma, there was chaos in the effort to stake claims on land where oil wells could be established. Guthrie Sr lost all his money in his efforts. Unable to look after the children on his own, he shipped them out to family and friends.

What is Huntington's Disease?

 
Huntington disease (HD) is an inherited brain disorder. HD causes cells in parts of the brain to die. As the brain cells die, a person with Huntington’s loses control of movement, memory, and has difficulty controlling emotions. The disease leads to gradual paralysis and, eventually, death.

Interest in Music

About this time, Woody became interested in music and learned to play the guitar and the harmonica. A story is told of the young Guthrie learning the mouth organ at the hands of a shoeless African-American on a local sidewalk, but some friends of Woody say that is just an embellished story.

Moving from family friend to family and back again didn’t sit well with the young man, and soon he was to start on one of his many trips around the country where he would earn money from doing odd jobs and entertaining locals.

The famous picture by Dorothea Lange of a migrant family during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl era.
The famous picture by Dorothea Lange of a migrant family during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl era. | Source

Oklahoma Dust Bowl

In the 1930’s depression and time of the Oklahoma dust bowl, like many others, Woody headed to California. However, there was no welcome for him when he got there. Unless there was evidence to show sufficient funds to be self-supportive, many people were turned away from the border.The song, “Do Re Mi” describes the problems faced by migrants.

Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, folks, you ain't got the do re mi,

Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.

California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;

But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot

If you ain't got the do re mi.

Although Woody had written songs before this, it was when he was travelling, and he experienced the injustices meted out on the poor that his songwriting came into its own. The pieces he wrote had a surface appeal of jolly, singalong ditties, but they were deliberately written that way so that the robust message was unequivocal.

Guthrie’s travels took him all over the USA. He became sympathetic to union causes; had empathy for communist doctrines but never became a card-carrying member of the party.

I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose.

— Woody Guthrie

Marriage

At the age of 19, Woody married Mary Jennings with whom he had three children, Gwendolyn, Sue and Bill. However, in all three of his marriages, he was an absent husband and father. Guthrie was a man who travelled and a family slowed him down.

Source

Growing Reputation

Woody was getting a bit of a reputation as a singer/songwriter and, undeterred by the police, slipped into California and was successful enough to get a radio show singing hillbilly songs with his sidekick, Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman. Unfortunately, because his songs echoed many communist ideas, the radio programme was axed after the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was signed.

Alan Lomax

Guthrie moved on to New York where he was invited to record several of his songs and be interviewed by Library of Congress, folklorist, Alan Lomax. The format was simple, Lomax and Guthrie would talk about the music of the south and then play some of the “Okie’s” best compositions. He was sometimes accompanied in performance by Pete Seeger who impressed the balladeer so much he took him under his wing, and they became firm friends.

This Land is Your Land

A song that was popular in the lead up to the USA’s involvement in World War Two was Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America”. Guthrie detested it because the America described in the song was nothing like the reality of life for the Americans he knew well. In response, he wrote his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land”. The song begins warm and hopeful,


This land is your land This land is my land

From California to the New York island;

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.


But the point is, the country is not for everyone.


As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."

But on the other side it didn't say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,

By the relief office I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?


The song had an unusual recording history in that it was never properly recorded until four years after it was written. There are several versions of the song, perhaps to consider the political sensitivities of the time, some of the more contentious lyrics were often left out. A version uncovered by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, has the verse

"One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,

by the relief office I saw my people.

As they stood hungry,

I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me."

Five Famous Woody Guthrie Songs

 
This Land is Your Land
So Long (Been Good To Know You)
Deportee
Pastures of Plenty
Do-Re-Mi

The Almanac Singers

Guthrie took off again, hitching and performing around the country until he was invited by Pete Seeger to join a band he was forming called “The Almanac Singers” whose message was unwaveringly freedom and justice. He accepted the invitation.

The Almanac Singers sang anti-war anti-racist and pro-union songs. They had a style that borrowed from different folk styles of the time. Instead of performing in evening dress, which was common at the time, the group wore ordinary working clothes. Essential to all performances was that the audience would sing along.

However, soon the FBI were on the group’s trail. Much negative publicity ensued regarding the allegiances some of the group had with the communist party, and within a few years "The Almanac Singers" disbanded only to morph into "The Weavers", but without Guthrie.

Bound for Glory

During his time recording songs and being interviewed for The Library of Congress, Alan Lomax said to Guthrie that he had a gift for storytelling and encouraged him to write down his recollections of life in Oklahoma and travelling around the country. With the help of his second wife, Marjorie Mazia -who helped edit his work, Guthrie produced “Bound for Glory”, a memoir of sorts, written in a laid-back, Oklahoma-type syntax. Its vivid style and sense of time and place led it to be warmly received by the public and critics. It was made into a film in 1976 starring David Carradine, though it was more Hollywood than Oklahoma. The film begins in 1936 when Guthrie would have been 24, but Carradine was nearly 40. Guthrie was five feet six inches tall while the former “Kwai-Chang- Cain” was over six feet. Most of the movie was fictitious and only gave a glimmer of what Woody was really like.

Further Tragedy

During the second world war, Guthrie served in the Merchant Navy and the Army. When Armistice was declared, he returned to the USA to continue his career and marriage to Marjorie. The songwriter’s path took a different route - he began writing children’s songs and recorded the album “Songs to Grow on for A Mother and Child”. In a life that had seen more than its fair share of tragedy, calamity would come knocking at Woody’s door again, and just like his father and sister, a fire was the cause. Four-year-old Cathy Guthrie was left playing alone in the family home and died in a blaze that was accidentally started there. This sent the balladeer into a deep depression.

Deportee

In 1948, Guthrie wrote one of his saddest songs “Deportees”. It was about the crash of a plane that had been chartered for the deportation of Mexican workers from California and lamented, among other things, the fact that the Mexicans who died in the crash were not given a name and just referred to as, “Deportee”.

Declining Health

From the late forties, Woody’s health began to deteriorate. He was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and alcoholism; in fact, he had inherited Huntington’s Disease and slowly it began to take a grip on him. He was divorced from his second wife, Marjorie and married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk. Their marriage ended in divorce after only a year as Anneke found the strain of caring for Guthrie too much for her.

Huntington’s tightened its hold on Guthrie and from 1954 to his death in 1967, he spent much of his time in psychiatric hospitals as there was scarce treatment available for the disease available.

From time to time Woody felt well enough to take a short sabbatical from hospital life but most of his later years were spent in confinement although he did have support from his family and was visited by friends like Pete Seeger and admirers such as Bob Dylan.

Legacy

Guthrie’s work has not been forgotten. It has been kept alive by performers like Joan Baez, Dylan and the Byrds. His daughter, Nora, has been diligent in her efforts to keep her father’s legacy in the public consciousness.

What made Guthrie a revered figure was his championing of the ordinary man through his memorable songs and political activism. He never took himself seriously despite his fame. He was always someone who regular folk could identify with.

References

BBC Arena: Woody Guthrie

PBS American Masters: Ain't Got No Home

PBS American Masters: The Power of Song

Woody Guthrie: A Life Joe Klein

Bound for Glory (1943) Woody Guthrie

Alan Lomax Recordings of Guthrie 1940

Bound For Glory (Movie) 1976 (Dir Hal Ashby)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woody_Guthrie

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    • Al Greenbaum profile image
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      Al Greenbaum 6 months ago from Europe

      Thanks for your comments Robert. No doubt about it, Woody had a huge influence on music. What got me about his life and work was the terrible tragedies that came his way and his refusal to be stopped by them.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Enjoyed your hub very much. It is always good to learn about the lives of those who were and are contributors to the world of music. Somehow writers like Guthrie and Hank Williams Senior had the gift of putting into lyrics with melodies that have continued to amaze us. Thanks for sharing.