Woody Guthrie would become an influential song-writer, the musical voice of the working class and political left, championing labor unions, peace, antifascism, civil liberties, and much more. Though never a member of the Communist Party, Guthrie pursued his idiosyncratic fusion of Marxism and Protestantism. In particular, “This Land Is Your Land” would become the unofficial national anthem by the 1960s.
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, to Nora and Charley Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma. Less than 2 weeks earlier, Woodrow Wilson had been nominated as the Democratic Party candidate for president, and Charley Guthrie was a loyal Democrat. Woody’s father had served as district court clerk and had made a decent income in real estate and insurance, providing a middle-class lifestyle for his family, which included five children until the accidental death by fire of their eldest daughter, Clara, in 1919. In the early 1920s the Guthrie family experienced hard economic times, while Nora began to undergo the increasing symptoms of Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative disease that led to her commitment to the state mental hospital in 1927. The teenage Woody was then basically on his own.
Woody Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas, in 1929 and married Mary Jennings in 1933; they would have three children. They struggled through the growing Depression, with Guthrie improving on the guitar and mandolin. He moved to Los Angeles in 1937 and began performing with his cousin Jack Guthrie, a western singer. They landed a program on KFVD, but soon Jack was replaced by Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman, a partnership that lasted until mid-1938. Identifying with the migrant workers flooding into California from the Dust Bowl, Guthrie was attracted to the left politics of Ed Robbin and actor Will Geer, who brought him to Communist Party events. He had a column in People’s World, the Party’s West Coast paper, and he performed in the migrant worker camps, trying out his topical songs, such as “Dustbowl Refugee” and “Vigilante Man.”
Upon Geer’s invitation, Guthrie arrived in New York City in February 1940, where the well-read Guthrie passed himself off as an unlettered hick. He appeared in the “Grapes of Wrath” benefit concert in New York, sharing the stage with Geer, Pete Seeger, Aunt Molly Jackson, Burl Ives, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Alan Lomax, who soon had Guthrie on his Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio program. Lomax, who headed the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, also brought Guthrie to Washington, D.C., where he recorded his stories and 40 songs. Lomax also persuaded Guthrie and Seeger to put together a book of labor songs, titled Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, which would not be published until the 1960s. Guthrie’s first album for RCA Victor, Dust Bowl Ballads, included “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “Do Re Mi,” “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” and “Tom Joad.” He briefly had his own network radio show, Pipe Smoking Time. He next obtained a commission to write songs for the Bonneville Power Administration, then building the Grand Coolee Dam on the Columbia River in 1941. In a very productive month, he wrote some of his most powerful songs, including “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done.”
Back in New York he joined with Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell in the Almanac Singers, a loose group that performed their own songs about peace, labor unions, and civil rights. He recorded “Boomtown Bill” and “Keep That Oil A-Rollin’” with the Almanacs and appeared in their albums Deep Sea Chanties and Whaling Ballads and Sod Buster Ballads. His creative autobiography Bound for Glory was published in 1943, receiving generally positive reviews. During World War II, he joined the Merchant Marine and survived three harrowing trips across the Atlantic. During the war Guthrie also recorded extensively for Moses (Moe) Asch. Curiously, at war’s end Guthrie was drafted into the army, where he languished until the end of 1945, just after he married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia. They would have four children, Cathy Ann, Arlo, Nora, and Joady. Guthrie wrote numerous children’s songs, such as “Clean-o” and “Put Your Finger in the Air,” which first appeared on Songs to Grow On on Asch’s Disc label.
Following the war, Guthrie became involved with People’s Songs, a progressive musical organization formed by Seeger and others that lasted until 1949. Guthrie performed for the Henry Wallace campaign for president in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket. He was devastated by the accidental death of his daughter Cathy in 1947. Times were hard until the success of the Weavers in 1950, which included Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. Their recording of Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” for Decca produced significant royalties. Guthrie now appeared rarely in public, but Moe Asch had formed Folkways Records in 1949 and soon after began to reissue a steady stream 33 1/3 rpm albums of Guthrie’s songs. Guthrie’s music began to attract a new audience, including the young Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who first visited him in 1951 and quickly became his loyal disciple. Always restless, Guthrie moved to the Los Angeles area in 1952, in a shed on the property of Will and Herta Geer in Topanga Canyon. Guthrie purchased adjoining land and erected a primitive shelter. Divorced from Marjorie, he married the young Anneke Van Kirk Marshall, and they had one child. They briefly moved to Florida, where Guthrie continued to work on another book, finally titled Seeds of Man. In 1952 he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which accounted for his increasingly erratic behavior.
Guthrie returned to New York with Anneke in 1953, where his health continued to deteriorate, leading to the disintegration of his third marriage. The next year he checked himself into the Brooklyn State Hospital. Huntington’s increasingly prevented Guthrie from controlling his body, but did not affect his mind. Though divorced, Marjorie began looking after Guthrie, as did Harold Leventhal, who became Guthrie’s financial agent. He helped organize a fundraising concert in 1956, which featured a script by Millard Lampell, read by Earl Robins and Lee Hays, and featuring performances of Guthrie’s songs by Seeger, Ed McCurdy, the Reverend Gary Davis, and others. A fragile Guthrie was in the audience and responded to rousing applause when introduced. He moved to the New Jersey State Hospital at Greystone Park soon after the concert. He began to leave the hospital on weekends to spend time at the home of Sid and Bob Gleason, where the family and others would visit. He was occasionally taken to Washington Square Park to listen to the folk singers. In 1961, the 19-year-old Bob Dylan visited, having heard Guthrie’s records in Minneapolis. Along with Jack Elliott, who was already carrying on the tradition by recording and performing Guthrie’s songs in the United States and England, and Cisco Houston, who recorded a Guthrie album not long before his death in 1961, Dylan would be another to keep the flame burning, partly through his “Song to Woody.” He moved back to the Brooklyn State Hospital, from where he could visit his children at Marjorie’s home on weekends. He died on October 3, 1967.
Woody Guthrie had been out of the public eye for some years, but with his death came increasing fame and recognition. A memorial concert at Carnegie Hall in 1968, with a second at the Hollywood Bowl 2 years later, featured the cream of the folk crowd—Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Jack Elliott, Odetta, Pete Seeger, and others—which resulted in two albums. Elektra Records released a three-record set of Lomax’s Library of Congress interviews. Folkways albums were widely available, and after the company was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution there were additional CDs of virtually all of his recordings for Moe Asch on the Smithsonian/Folkways label. His early life was roughly captured in the Hollywood film Bound for Glory in 1975. Although still mostly famous for “This Land Is Your Land” and other early songs, his musical creativity has become better known in recent years, with the release of two albums by Billy Bragg and Wilco of Guthrie’s unknown songs and poems that previously lacked music and now reached a sizeable audience. More recently The Klezmatics produced Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyus Hanuka, an album of songs that came from his relationship with Marjorie’s mother, Aliza Greenblatt, a famous Yiddish poet. Guthrie is not only a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the Cleveland institution held a weekend of events in his honor in 1996. His writings are widely available, and his illustrations appeared in Woody Guthrie Art Works in 2005. While his creative energies were mostly packed into a 10-year period, beginning in the later 1930s, his legacy will live forever. Even his hometown of Okemah finally began a yearly 3-day Guthrie festival in 1997. He had finally come home.
Dylan, Bob; Protest Music; Seeger, Pete
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