Woody Guthrie (1912–1967)
Born in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie described the small frontier town in Okfuskee County like this: “Okemah was one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.”
Guthrie's father, Charles, was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician. The family's financial and physical ruin and his mother's institutionalization because of Huntingdon's chorea devastated Guthrie, creating a uniquely wry and rambling outlook on life.
A skinny, wiry man, with a head of unruly curly hair, Guthrie was a keen observer of the world around him. In 1931, when Okemah's boomtown period went bust, Guthrie left for Texas. In 1933, in the panhandle town of Pampa, he married Mary Jennings, and together they had three children. The Great Depression and the Great Dust Storm of 1935 made it impossible to make a living. Driven by a search for a better life, Guthrie joined the westward migration of dust bowl refugees known as Okies.
Without money and hungry, he hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked to California, developing a love for traveling on the open road — a practice he would repeat often. By the time he arrived in California, in 1937, he had experienced the intense hatred of Californians for the Okies and for other outsiders who were flooding the state.
Guthrie's identification with outsiders soon found its way into his songwriting, as evident in his Dust Bowl ballads, such as “I Ain't Got No Home,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” and “Tom Joad and Hard Travelin'.”
His 1937 radio broadcasts on KFVD, Los Angeles, and XELO (just over the border in Mexico) brought Guthrie wide public attention. It also gave him a platform from which he could develop his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism on topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the humanist principles of Jesus Christ, Pretty Boy Floyd, and union organizers.
Never one to stay in one place for too long, Guthrie headed east for New York City in 1939, where he was quickly embraced by leftist organizations, artists, writers, musicians, and other intellectuals.
Meeting and mingling with artists such as Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sony Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, and others, Guthrie took to such social causes as union organizing, anti-fascism, and strengthening the communist party. Generally, he fought for the things he and his friends believed in the only way he knew how: through political songs of protest.
In 1940, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Guthrie for the Library of Congress in a series of conversations and songs. The Almanac Singers, the politically radical singing group of the late 1940s, would later reform as the Weavers, the most commercially successful and influential folk music group of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Finally, disillusioned with New York's radio and entertainment industry, Guthrie headed down South. With the final dissolution of his first marriage, and despite Guthrie's constant traveling and performing, he nevertheless courted an already-married young Martha Graham dancer named Marjorie Mazia. This relationship provided Guthrie with a level of domestic stability and encouragement he had not previously known, enabling him to complete and publish his first novel,
An ardent anti-fascist, during World War II Guthrie served in both the Merchant Marines and the army, shipping out to sea on several occasions with his buddies Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi.
In 1946, Guthrie settled in Coney Island, New York, with his wife and children. Soon his behavior and health began to deteriorate, becoming increasingly erratic and creating tensions in his personal and professional life. He moved to California, remarried for a third time, and then returned to New York. He was eventually diagnosed with Huntington's chorea, the same degenerative disease that had taken his mother from him. For the next thirteen years he was in and out of hospitals. Finally, on October 3, 1967, at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York, Woody Guthrie died.
The Smithsonian Institution and the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives have collaborated on a major traveling exhibition about Guthrie's life and legacy, allowing thousands of people to view for themselves Guthrie's artwork, writings, and songs.
Popular and folk musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Ani DiFranco, and countless others continue to draw inspiration from Woody Guthrie, reinterpreting and reinvigorating his songs for new audiences.