Woody Guthrie, Legendary Songwriter and Folk Singer

Troubadour of the Common People Wrote Classic Songs During Depression

Woody Guthrie Portrait
Folk singer Woody Guthrie poses for a portrait with his guitar which has a sign on it that reads "This Machine Kills Fascists" in circa 1943.

Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

Woody Guthrie was an American songwriter and folk singer whose songs about troubles and triumphs of American life, coupled with his raw performing style, had enormous influence on popular music and culture. An eccentric character often viewed as something of a hobo poet, Guthrie created a template for songwriters which, carried along by admirers including Bob Dylan, helped infuse popular songs with poetic and often political messages.

His most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land" has become an official national anthem, sung at countless school assemblies and public gatherings. Though his career was cut short by an incapacitating illness, Guthrie's songs have continued to inspire successive generations of musicians and listeners.

Fast Facts: Woody Guthrie

  • Full Name: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
  • Known For: Songwriter and folk singer who portrayed the troubles and triumphs of Depression era Americans and had enormous influence on popular music.
  • Born: July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma
  • Died: October 3, 1967 in New York, New York
  • Parents: Charles Edward Guthrie and Nora Belle Sherman
  • Spouses: Mary Jennings (m. 1933-1940), Marjorie Mazia (m. 1945-1953 ), and Anneke Van Kirk (m. 1953-1956)
  • Children: Gwen, Sue, and Bill Guthrie (with Jennings); Cathy, Arlo, Joady, and Nora Guthrie (with Mazia); and Lorina (with Van Kirk)

Early Life

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the third of five children, and both his parents were interested in music.

The town of Okemah was only about ten years old, recently settled by transplants who brought musical traditions and instruments with them. As a child Guthrie heard church music, songs from the Appalachian mountain tradition, and fiddle music. It seems music was a bright spot in his life, which was marked by tragic incidents.

When Guthrie was 7 years old his mother’s mental condition began to deteriorate. She was suffering from undiagnosed Huntington’s chorea, the same disease that would, decades later, afflict Woody. His sister perished in a kitchen fire, and following that tragedy, his mother was committed to an asylum.

When Guthrie was 15 the family moved to Pampa, Texas, to stay near relatives. Guthrie began to play the guitar. With his natural musical aptitude he soon mastered it and began performing with an aunt and uncle in a small band. He also learned to play mandolin, fiddle, and harmonica, and was known to perform in talent shows and plays at his high school.

Woody Guthrie Playing the Guitar
Woody Guthrie portrait. Bettmann / Getty Images

After finishing high school, Guthrie took off to travel about the South, essentially choosing to live as a hobo. He kept singing and playing guitar wherever he went, picking up various songs and beginning to write some of his own.

He eventually returned to Pampa, and at the age of 21 he married a friend’s 16-year-old sister, Mary Jennings. The couple would have three children.

Pampa is located in the Texas panhandle, and when the Dust Bowl conditions struck, Guthrie was an eyewitness. He felt great empathy for the farmers whose lives were upended by the severe weather conditions, and began to write the songs that would comprise a body of work about those affected by the Dust Bowl.

In 1937 Guthrie was restless to get out of Texas, and managed to hitch rides to California. In Los Angeles he performed, got noticed, and landed a job singing on a local radio station. He was able to send for his wife and children and the family settled in Los Angeles for a time.

Guthrie became friends with the actor Will Geer, who was very active in radical political circles. He enlisted Guthrie to sing some of his songs at rallies, and Guthrie became associated with communist sympathizers. In 1940 Geer, who was staying in New York City, convinced Guthrie to cross the country and join him. Guthrie and his family headed to New York.

Burst of Creativity

His arrival in the big city in February 1940 sparked a burst of creativity. Staying at the Hanover House, a small hotel near Times Square, he wrote down, on February 23, 1940, the lyrics for what would become his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land."

The song had been in his head as he'd traveled across the country. The song "God Bless America" by Irving Berlin had become a huge hit in the late 1930s, and Guthrie was irritated that Kate Smith's rendition of it was endlessly played on the radio. In response to it, he wrote a song which declared, in simple yet poetic terms, that America belonged to its people.

New York City, Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie
c. 1940, New York, New York City, Almanac Singers, L-R: Woody Gurthrie, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger, Arthur Stern, Sis Cunningham. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

In a span of a few months in New York, Guthrie met new friends including Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Cisco Houston. The folk song scholar Alan Lomax recorded Guthrie and also arranged for him to appear on a CBS radio network program.

Dust Bowl Ballads

In the spring of 1940, while based in New York, Guthrie traveled to the Victor Records studio in Camden, New Jersey. He recorded a collection of songs he had written about the Dust Bowl and the "Okies" of the Great Depression who had left the devastated farmlands of the Midwest for a grueling trip to California. The resulting album (folios of 78-rpm discs) titled "Dust Bowl Ballads" was released in the summer of 1940 and was notable enough to receive a very positive review in the New York Times on August 4, 1940. The newspaper praised Guthrie's writing and said of his songs:

"They make you think; they may even make you uncomfortable, though not as uncomfortable as the Okie on his miserable journey. But they are an excellent thing to have on record."

"Dust Bowl Ballads," which is now in print in a compact disc version, contains some of Guthrie's best-known songs, including "Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues," "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore," and "Do Re Mi," a mordantly funny song about the troubles of migrants arriving penniless in California. The song collection also contained "Tom Joad," Guthrie's rewrite of the story of John Steinbeck's classic Dust Bowl novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck did not mind.

Woody Guthrie Performs On Stoop
American folk singer Woody Guthrie performs on a stoop for an audience of predominantly children, New York, New York, 1943. Eric Schaal / Getty Images

Back West

Despite his success, Guthrie was restless in New York City. In a new car he'd been able to purchase, he drove his family back to Los Angeles, where he discovered work was scarce. He took a job for the federal government, for a New Deal agency in the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration. Guthrie was paid $266 to interview workers on a dam project and write a series of songs promoting the benefits of hydroelectric power.

Guthrie took to the project enthusiastically, writing 26 songs in a month (often borrowing tunes, as was common in the folk tradition). Some have endured, including "Grand Coulee Dam," "Pastures of Plenty," and "Roll On, Columbia," his ode to the mighty Columbia River. The odd assignment prompted him to write songs packed with his trademark wordplay, humor, and empathy for working people.

Following his time in the Pacific Northwest he returned to New York City. His wife and children didn't come along to New York but moved to Texas, intent on finding a permanent home where the children could attend school. That separation would mark the end of Guthrie's first marriage.

New York and War

Based in New York as the city began to mobilize for war following the Pearl Harbor attack, Guthrie began writing songs supporting the American war effort and denouncing fascism. Photographs of him taken during this period often show him playing a guitar with the sign on it: "This Machine Kills Fascists."

Woody Guthrie Playing Guitar
American folk singer Woody Guthrie (1912 - 1967) plays his guitar, which has a handwritten sticker that says, 'This Machine Kills Fascists,' New York, New York, 1943. Eric Schaal / Getty Images

During the war years he wrote a memoir, Bound For Glory, an account of his travels around the country.

Guthrie joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and made several sea voyages, delivering supplies as part of the war effort. Near the end of the war he was drafted and spent a year in the U.S. Army. When the war ended he was discharged and after some traveling about the country he settled in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

In the late 1940s, Guthrie recorded more songs and continued writing. Many lyrics he never got around to setting to music, including "Deportees," a song about migrant workers killed in a plane crash in California while being deported to Mexico. He had been inspired by a newspaper article that didn't provide the names of the victims. As Guthrie put it in his lyrics, "The newspaper said they were just deportees." Guthrie's words were later put to music by others, and the song has been performed by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and many others.

Illness and Legacy

Guthrie remarried and had more children. But his life took a dark turn when he began to be afflicted with the onset of Huntington's chorea, the hereditary disease which had killed his mother. As the disease attacks brain cells, the effects are profound. Guthrie slowly lost his ability to control his muscles, and had to be hospitalized.

As a new generation of folk song enthusiasts discovered his work in the late 1950s his reputation grew. Robert Zimmerman, a student at the University of Minnesota who had recently started calling himself Bob Dylan, became fascinated with Guthrie to the extent of hitching a ride to the East Coast so he could visit him at a state hospital in New Jersey. Inspired by Guthrie, Dylan began writing his own songs.

Guthrie's own son, Arlo, eventually began performing in public, becoming a successful singer and songwriter. And countless other young people, hearing Guthrie's old records, were energized and inspired.

After more than a decade of hospitalization, Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967, at the age of 55. His obituary in the New York Times noted that he had written as many as 1,000 songs.

Many recordings of Woody Guthrie are still available (today on the popular streaming services) and his archives are housed at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Sources:

  • "Guthrie, Woody." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by Laura B. Tyle, vol. 5, UXL, 2003, pp. 838-841. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Guthrie, Woody." Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 2: Biographies, UXL, 2003, pp. 88-94. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Guthrie, Woody 1912–1967." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 256, Gale, 2014, pp. 170-174. Gale Virtual Reference Library.