Before diving into the full profile, here‘s a quick snapshot of Woody Guthrie‘s remarkable life:
|Full Name||Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie|
|Birthday||July 14, 1912|
|Death Date||October 3, 1967|
|Spouses||Mary Jennings (1933-1935), Marjorie Mazia (1945-1953)|
|Children||4, including Arlo and Nora Guthrie|
|Key Songs||"This Land is Your Land", "So Long It‘s Been Good to Know Yuh", "I Ain‘t Got No Home", "Deportee"|
Now onto the full story of this legendary American folk icon!
Origins of a Folk Hero
Born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie came of age in the American Southwest during the hardship of the Dust Bowl era. His father Charley was a local businessman and politician, but the family was struck by tragedy when Woody‘s sister Clara died in a house fire. Young Woody learned folk and country music from relatives, mastering guitar, harmonica, and mandolin by his early teens.
After dropping out of high school and traveling through the Southwestern states during the late 1920s, Guthrie married his first wife Mary Jennings in 1933. Though the marriage didn‘t last, it marked the start of Woody‘s lifelong penchant for wandering – he disliked staying in one place for too long.
From California to Cementing his Legacy
Like many economic refugees from the Dust Bowl, Woody headed to California looking for work in the mid-1930s. In Los Angeles he landed a radio show on KFVD, where he began introducing political and social commentary into his folk songwriting. His radio performances brought him wider fame across California but he soon felt compelled to travel again.
In 1940, Guthrie arrived in New York City, where he recorded his first album Dust Bowl Ballads for RCA Victor. In New York he fell in with Pete Seeger and helped form the Almanac Singers, one of the first groups to inject political activism into folk music.
Some of Guthrie‘s most famous compositions date from his first years in New York City, including "This Land Is Your Land" (a response to the ubiquitous "God Bless America"), the haunting Dust Bowl ballad "So Long, It‘s Been Good To Know Yuh," and "Pastures of Plenty" – an eloquent chronicle of struggling migrant workers.
Bringing Folk Conscience to the Masses
During WWII, Guthrie served in the Merchant Marine, an experience that inspired him to pen "The Sinking of the Reuben James." In the late 1940s he continued traveling the country, performing on radio programs in Portland and landing a TV show in Los Angeles.
His musicianship was interrupted by personal demons – Guthrie struggled with alcohol addiction and (later on) succumbed to the degenerative neural disorder Huntington‘s disease. Yet even while hospitalized in the 1950s, he managed to pen a fictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory about his Dust Bowl origins.
When Guthrie passed away in 1967 at only 55 years old, he left behind over 1000 songs chronicling 20th century working class America in all its hardship and hope. His compositions used folk storytelling and poetry to spotlight the most pressing economic and social issues of the day. InTracks like "I Ain‘t Got No Home" and "Deportee" gave an impassioned voice to the struggles of migrant workers and immigrant groups.
The Legend Lives On
Though appreciated mostly by folk music circles during his actual career, Guthrie‘s legacy grew by leaps and bounds in the decades after his death. He went on to profoundly influence generations of musicians who admired his fusion of art and activism.
Bob Dylan idolized Guthrie, learning his songs and modeling his early folk style in tribute. Other major Americana artists like Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs carried on Guthrie‘s spirit of giving voice to the downtrodden. The rich songbook he left behind has been adapted by roots, rock, and folk performers for over 50 years now.
Today, Woody Guthrie is enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and his archives housed at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Through his enduring anthems like "This Land is Your Land", Guthrie‘s conscience, poetry, and passion for the working class will never be forgotten. He remains the quintessential American folk hero.