Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. He was named after Woodrow Wilson and his father Charlie was a politically active cowboy and would take young Woody to many of his meetings. His parents were musical and Woody was exposed to many Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes as a youngster. In his early teenage years’ family tragedy struck leaving Woody and his siblings in reduced circumstance, his mother dead and his father working away from home. Aged 14, the young Guthrie worked at odd jobs around Okemah and lived more or less from hand to mouth. He had a natural affinity for music and learned to "play by ear" so was soon busking for coins and scraps of food. He dropped out of high school but remained an avid reader throughout his life. Aged 18 he moved to Pampa, Texas to join his father and continued with his musical activities becoming a member of a band with Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker called The Corn Cob Trio and later the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. The drought and dust storms of 1935 forced many thousands of desperate farmers and unemployed workers to head west in search of work. Although married he left Texas, like hundreds of “dustbowl refugees,” he hit Route 66, looking for a way to support his family back home.
Penniless and hungry, Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked for hundreds of miles on his way to California. He took whatever small jobs he could in exchange for bed and board. The young musician met different people and learned many traditional folk and blues songs. Once in California Woody and Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman met and sang "hillbilly" music and traditional folk music. They became professionals and featured regularly on radio station KFVD.
Once there Woody and Ed Robbin became friends and he was introduced to socialists and communists in Southern California. Although Woody was never a member of the Communist Party he held strong Socialist views and ended up writing a current events column for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker. Will Geer became a lifelong friend and helped the singer with bookings. At the outbreak of the Second World War when Russia signed a none aggressive pack with Germany, anti-Communist feelings were rife in the US and Woody and Ed Robbin left KFVD and went to New York to continue with his performing career. Now billed as the ‘Oklahoma Cowboy,’ Woody was embraced by its leftist folk music community of the Big Apple. During this time her recorded the album Dust Bowl Ballads for Victor Records and met folklorist Alan Lomax who recorded several hours of conversation and songs for the Library of Congress.
Woody first met Pete Seeger in 1940 at The Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers benefit concert. In the same year he wrote “This land is your land,” which was originally titled God Blessed America and was based on an old gospel song, “Oh my loving brother.” This was possibly one of the first protest songs which were inspired by Guthrie’s dislike of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."
Instead of the unrealistic and complacent expressed in the latter Woody’s version protested class inequality and it took another four years before it appeared on record. Woody and fellow left wing musicians would meet at Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter apartment on Tenth’s Street. He became close friends with Led Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, among many others. Together they formed a loosely knit folk group called The Almanac Singers and hosted regular concerts called hootenannies.
Woody was one of the prominent songwriters and eventually the singers moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village. Later the Almanac Singers evolved into The Weavers who were pioneers in commercial folk music enjoying vogue in the early 50s.
With his radio appearances he was soon earning good enough money to send regular payments back to Mary and eventually brought Mary and the children to New York. The mantle of success was a burden to Woody and he took his wife and three young children to Los Angeles for a short time before moving to Washington. The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River was being built and the organisers wanted to make a documentary film so engaged Woody to compose a selection of songs for the soundtrack. In just over 28 days Woody wrote 26 songs including three of his most famous: "Roll On Columbia", "Pastures of Plenty", and "Grand Coulee Dam".
He also travelled around giving concerts but by now he wanted to go back New York. There he wrote an enormous portfolio of songs. During the Second World War, Woody served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army composing hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war, and historic ballads. He also wrote songs about the dangers of venereal diseases.
By the end of the 1940s Woody Guthrie's health was beginning to deteriorate and his behaviour extremely erratic. He was prone to moods and violence which created tensions in his personal and professional life. In 1952 he was diagnosed with Huntington's Disease which is a genetic disorder which he had inherited from his mother. Fearful he would harm any of the family he moved out and went to California but his situation continued to deteriorate sufficiently when he returned to New York he was hospitalised and remained there until he death in 1967.
During the McArthur Years Woody, the Weavers, Pete Seeger and many others from their circle, were targeted for their activist stances on the right to unionize, equal rights, and free speech. By the late fifties interest in folk music was revived and a new generation of musicians were singing about issues of freedom of speech and civil rights. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, and Phil Ochs Woody was survived by his son Arlo who enjoyed commercial success with “Alice’s Restaurant“ in 1967.
Worth a listen
Jesus Christ (1940)
Worried Man Blues (1940)
Gran Coulee Damn (1941)
Roll Columbia Roll (1941 )
Pastures of Plenty (1941)
The biggest thing a man has ever done (1941)
Ramblin’ Blues (1941)
It Takes a Married Man to Sing A Worried Song (1941)
Sinking of the Rueben James (1942)
Going down the road feeling bad ((1942)
Talking Fishing Blues (1944)
Jesse James (1944)
This Land Is Your Land (1944)
Picture from life’s other side (1944)
All You Fascists Bound To Lose (1944)
Car Song (1954)