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BIOGRAPHY



CHILDHOOD (1912-1931)
Okemah, Oklahoma
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From left: Woody, Nora, Charley, & George Guthrie at their home in Okemah, Oklahoma, 1924.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"Okemah was one of the singingest, 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."

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the second-born son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father - a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician - taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes. His Kansas-born mother, also musically inclined, had an equally profound effect on Woody.

Slightly built, with an extremely full and curly head of hair, Woody was a precocious and unconventional boy from the start. Always a keen observer of the world around him, the people, music and landscape he was exposed to made lasting impressions on him.

During his early years in Oklahoma, Woody experienced the first of a series of immensely tragic personal losses. With the accidental death of his older sister Clara, the family's financial ruin, and the institutionalization and eventual loss of his mother, Woody's family and home life was forever devastated.

In 1920, oil was discovered nearby and overnight Okemah was transformed into an "oil boom" town, bringing thousands of workers, gamblers and hustlers to the once sleepy farm town. Within a few years, the oil flow suddenly stopped and Okemah suffered a severe economic turnaround, leaving the town and its inhabitants "busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted."

From his experiences in Okemah, Woody's uniquely wry outlook on life, as well as his abiding interest in rambling around the country, was formed. And so, he took to the open road.

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THE GREAT DUST BOWL (1931-1937)
Pampa, Texas
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Woody in Pampa, Texas, 1931.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"If there was anybody around there that did not play some instrument I did not see them... We played for rodeos, centennials, carnivals, parades, fairs, just bustdown parties, and played several nights and days a week just to hear our own boards rattle and our strings roar around in the wind. It was along in these days I commenced singing, I guess it was singing."

In 1931, when Okemah's boomtown period went bust, Woody left for Texas. In the panhandle town of Pampa, he fell in love with Mary Jennings, the younger sister of a friend and musician named Matt Jennings. Woody and Mary were married in 1933, and together had three children, Gwen, Sue and Bill.

It was with Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker that Woody made his first attempt at a musical career, forming The Corn Cob Trio and later the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. It was also in Pampa that Woody first discovered a love and talent for drawing and painting, an interest he would pursue throughout his life.

If the Great Depression made it hard for Woody to support his family, the onslaught of the Great Dust Storm period, which hit the Great Plains in 1935, made it impossible. Drought and dust forced thousands of desperate farmers and unemployed workers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgia to head west in search of work. Woody, like hundreds of "dustbowl refugees," hit Route 66, also looking for a way to support his family, who remained back in Pampa.

Moneyless and hungry, Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked his way to California, taking whatever small jobs he could. In exchange for bed and board, Woody painted signs and played guitar and sang in saloons along the way, developing a love for traveling the open road-a lifelong habit he would often repeat.

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KFVD RADIO YEARS (1937-1940)
Los Angeles, California
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Woody and Maxine "Lefty Lou" Dempsey in Los Angeles, CA.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that....songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood."

By the time he arrived in California in 1937, Woody had experienced intense scorn, hatred, and even physical antagonism from resident Californians, who opposed the massive migration of the so-called "Okie" outsiders.

In Los Angeles Woody landed a job on KFVD radio, singing "old-time" traditional songs as well as some original songs. Together with his singing partner Maxine Crissman, aka "Lefty Lou," Woody began to attract widespread public attention, particularly from the thousands of relocated Okies gathered in migrant camps. Living in makeshift cardboard and tin shelters, Woody's program provided entertainment and a nostalgic sense of the "home" life they'd left behind; despite their desperate circumstances, it was a respite from the harsh realities of migrant life.

The local radio airwaves also provided Woody a forum from which he developed his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism. On topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the compassionate and humanist principles of Jesus Christ, the outlaw hero Pretty Boy Floyd, and the union organizers that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California's agricultural communities, Woody proved himself a hard-hitting advocate for truth, fairness, and justice.

Woody strongly identified with his audience and adapted to an "outsider" status, along with them. This role would become an essential element of his political and social positioning, gradually working its way into his songwriting; "I Ain't Got No Home", "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad", "Talking Dust Bowl Blues", "Tom Joad" and "Hard Travelin'"; all reflect his desire to give voice to those who had been disenfranchised.

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NEW YORK TOWN (1940-1941)
New York City, New York
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From left: Woody, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax, Pete Seeger, Arthur Stern, and Sis Cunningham. The Almanac Singers in 1941.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"There's several ways of saying what's on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain't any too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even to vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around.

One of the mainest ways is by singing. Drop the word 'folk' and just call it real old honest to god American singing. No matter who makes it up, no matter who sings it and who don't, if it talks the lingo of the people, it's a cinch to catch on, and will be sung here and yonder for a long time after you've cashed in your chips.

If the fight gets hot, the songs get hotter. If the going gets tough, the songs get tougher."

Never comfortable with success, or being in one place for too long, Woody headed east for New York City, arriving in 1940. He was quickly embraced for his Steinbeckian homespun wisdom and musical "authenticity" by leftist organizations, artists, writers, musicians, and progressive intellectuals. That same year, folklorist Alan Lomax 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, and throughout the 1940s he continued to record hundreds of discs for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. The recordings from this early period continue to be touchstones for folk music singer-songwriters everywhere.

In New York City, Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, among others, all became Woody's close friends and musical collaborators. Forming a loosely knit folk group called The Almanac Singers, they took up social causes such as union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening the Communist Party, peace, and generally fighting for the things they believed in the best way they could: through songs of political protest and activism. Woody became one of the prominent songwriters for the Almanac Singers.

The Almanacs helped to establish folk music as a viable commercial genre within the popular music industry. A decade later, original members of the Almanacs would re-form as the Weavers, the most commercially successful and influential folk music group of the early 1950s. It was through their tremendous popularity that Woody's songs would become known to the larger public.

With increasing popularity, prosperity and critical success from public performances, recordings, and even his own radio show, Woody could afford to bring his struggling family to New York to enjoy his new found success.

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COLUMBIA RIVER (1941)
Portland, Oregon
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Woody in the Pacific Northwest.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in this world, and I'm one walker that's stood way up and looked way down acrost aplenty of pretty sights in all their veiled and nakedest seasons.

The Pacific Northwest has got mineral mountains. It's got chemical deserts. It's got rough run canyons. It's got sawblade snowcaps. It's got ridges of nine kinds of brown, hills out of six colors of green, ridges five shades of shadows, and stickers the eight tones of hell.

I pulled my shoes on and walked out of every one of these Pacific Northwest Mountain towns drawing pictures in my mind and listening to poems and songs and words faster to come and dance in my ears than I could ever get them wrote down..."

Despite his success, Woody became increasingly restless and disillusioned with New York's radio and entertainment industry. Feeling the heat of censorship 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."

Leaving New York, with his wife and three young children in tow, Woody headed out 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 Administration 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 expired, Woody moved his family back to Pampa, Texas.

Hoping to get back to New York City, and on the radio, he hitchhiked his way across the country. Woody's constant traveling, performing, and lack of regular work throughout the early 1940s took a hard toll on his family. Together with his increasing interest and involvement with progressive "radical" politics helped bring about the end of his first marriage.

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WORLD WAR II (1942-1945)
New York City, New York
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Woody with his iconic guitar. Photo by Al Aumuller.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"This machine kills fascists."

 

Back in New York, Woody met and courted a young dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company named Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia. Sharing humanist ideals and activist politics, Woody and Marjorie were married in 1945 and over the years had four children: Cathy, (who died at age four in a tragic home fire), Arlo, Joady, and Nora.

This relationship provided Woody a level of domestic stability and encouragement which he had previously not known, enabling him to turn out a staggering number of original songs, writings, drawings, paintings, poems and prose pieces. 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, moved by his passion against Fascism, Woody served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army. Shipping 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, which were published in brochures distributed to sailors. His capacity for creative self-expression seemed inexhaustible, whether on land or sea.

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CONEY ISLAND (1946-1954)
New York City, New York
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Woody performing for children on New York City Street, 1943. Photo by Eric Schaal/TIMEPIX

 

WOODY SEZ...

"Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the ways you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way the kids do.

You'll be healthier. You'll feel wealthier. You'll talk wiser. You'll go higher, do better, and live longer here amongst us if you'll just only jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do.

I don't want the kids to be grownup. I want to see the grown folks be kids."

Following the war, in 1946, Woody Guthrie returned to settle in Coney Island, New York, with his wife Marjorie and their children. The peace he had fought so hard for seemed finally within his reach. It was during this time that Woody composed and recorded Songs to Grow On For Mother and Child and Work Songs To Grow On , considered children's classics which won him success and recognition as an innovative writer of children's songs.

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 ("Howdi 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 "Hanuka 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 and eventually 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.

Arriving at his friend Will Geer's property, Woody met Anneke Van Kirk, a young woman who became his third wife and with whom they had a daughter, Lorina.

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HOSPITAL YEARS (1954-1967)
Huntington's Disease
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Woody at Greystone Hospital, New Jersey, 1958.
Photo by Lou Gordon.

 

WOODY SEZ...

"The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine."

The late 1940's and early 1950's 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 working 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 3, 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 article which are housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York.

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LEGACY
"I Ain't Dead Yet"
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Woody with his iconic guitar
Photograph by Robin Carson

 

WOODY SEZ...

"There's a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again. Sometimes when I hear music I think back over my days - and a feeling that is fifty-fifty joy and pain swells like clouds taking all kinds of shapes in my mind.

Music is in all the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music - the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves, the whistle of a train, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker - kids squawling along the streets - the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert.

Life is this sound, and since creation has been a song. And there is no real trick of creating words to set to music, once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song."

Having lived through some of the most significant historic movements and events of the Twentieth-Century --the Great Depression, the Great Dust Storm, World War II, the social and the political upheavals resulting from Unionism, the Communist Party and the Cold War-- Woody absorbed it all to become a prolific writer whose songs, ballads, prose and poetry captured the plight of everyman. While traveling throughout the American landscape during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Woody's observations of what he saw and experienced has left for us a lasting and sometimes haunting legacy of images, sounds, and voices of the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people with whom he struggled to survive despite all odds. Although the corpus of original Woody Guthrie songs, or as Woody preferred "people's songs" are, perhaps, his most recognized contribution to American culture, the stinging honesty, humor, and wit found even in his most vernacular prose writings exhibit Woody's fervent belief in social, political, and spiritual justice.

In 1996, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Case Western Reserve University presented a ten day celebration honoring Woody Guthrie, entitled Hard Travelin'. It was the first major conference on the legacy of Woody Guthrie complete with a photo exhibition, lectures, films, and two benefit concerts, which were held in support of the Woody Guthrie Archives.

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HONORS & AWARDS

Woody Guthrie has been recognized for his monumental contributions and achievements in American culture. He has been the recipient of prestigious awards both from governmental departments and private arts organizations.

  • Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Pioneer Award 2012
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, Conservation Service Award 1966
  • The National Songwriters' Hall of Fame inductee 1970
  • The Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame inductee 1977
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum inductee 1988
  • The North American Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award 1996
  • National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Lifetime Achievement Award 1999
  • The Oklahoma Hall of Fame inductee 2006

-written by Jorge Arevalo / Woody Guthrie Archives

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