While perhaps not a world traveler, Woodie Guthrie’s songs and music have been the soundtrack to more than a few vagabond adventures. Because of that, he is truly extraordinary. In fact, it’s almost unthinkable to have a trip in the USA without singing or humming “This land is your land…this land is my land…from California…to the New York Islands…”
One of the best known folk singers ever, Woody Guthrie was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, on July 14, 1912 in a small town called Okemah in the state of Oklahoma. His parents, Charles Edward Guthrie and Nora Belle Tanner named him after the then governor of New Jersey, and future President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
Charles Guthrie was involved actively in local politics, and that could be one reason the family was so influenced by Woodrow Wilson. Guthrie spent most of his childhood and teenage in Okemah itself, where his father had quite a lot of land, and various other interests as well. Charles, however, was living in Texas because his wife was finding it hard to stay in Oklahoma with a few medical conditions from which she was suffering.
At the age of 19, Woodrow Guthrie was sent for by his father, and he met Mary Jennings, his first wife, whom he married and fathered three children with. Guthrie’s love for music was kindled right in Okemah, where he used to listen to old ballads and folk songs that were sung at festivals and traditional days.
Guthrie used to practice by singing an occasional song or two around town, and his flair for music was evident right at that stage. He stayed in Texas till the late 1930s, when he joined thousands of fellow Oklahoman people who were moving to California in search of better jobs and earnings. Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues songs. Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour”
It was in California that Guthrie tasted his first hand at fame, by performing traditional folk music that was broadcast over the radio, on the radio station KFVD. While working here, Guthrie began writing and composing his own songs, most of which revolved around the current political situations in the country and region.
Guthrie was forced to come out of KFVD in the early 1940s, his politics made him unhireable as he was rumored to be a communist since his guitar said “This machine kills fascists” and he wrote for the communist newspapers. In fact though, he never joined the party but finding no other employment, he returned to Texas along with his wife. But Guthrie was not meant to stay there because as he soon received a call from a former colleague asking him to come to New York to work on his musical career.
So, at this point, Woody moved to New York where he soon started performing. An unlikely place for a cowboy singer, but it was in New York City where his career really took off. His musical life took him to Los Angeles, Washington, Oregon and Coney Island, in all of which places he performed, composed songs and achieved fame. Perhaps the most productive time was with the Bonneville Power Association building the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. IN one month he wrote 26 songs.
“I hate a song that makes you think that you are 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 too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.
I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”
His career was at its peak when he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which led to detoriation of his health. He finally breathed his last on October 3, 1967. Though he is no more, his music has been carried through generations, mainly by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer and Tom Paxton, all of who have acknowledged Woody as one of the greatest singers of all time.