Full name, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie; born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla.; died of Huntington's chorea, October 3, 1967, in Queens, N.Y.; son of Charles Edward (in real estate) and Nora Belle (a housewife; maiden name, Tanner) Guthrie; married first wife, Marry Jennings, October 28, 1933 (divorced); married second wife, Marjorie Mazia Greenblatt ( a dancer and teacher), November 13, 1945 (divorced); married Anneke (Marshall) Van Kirk, 1953 (divorced); children (first marriage) Gwendolyn Gail, Carolyn Sue, Bill Rogers (died, 1962); (second marriage), Cathy Ann (died, 1947), Arlo Davy, Joady Ben, Nora Lee; (third marriage) Lorina Lynn. Education: Attended Brooklyn College.

"Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was a short, wiry guy with a mop of curly hair under a cowboy hat, as I first saw him. He'd stand with his guitar slung on his back, spinning out stories like Will Rogers, with a faint, wry grin. Then he'd hitch his guitar around and sing the longest long outlaw ballad you ever heard, or some Rabelaisian fantasy he'd concocted the day before and might never sing again," Pete Seeger described Woody Guthrie in his 1967 eulogy in Life magazine.

Guthrie, Seeger claimed, wrote more than 1000 songs. Many of them, like "This Land is Your Land," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," and "This Train Is Bound for Glory," have become American folk song standards. Many were written only for the moment to enliven a union hall rally or to entertain the hobos and dust bowl refugees he traveled with. Most were never intended for publication or the recording studio. He was also an avid collector of American folk songs, and many of his own songs consisted of original lyrics written to traditional melodies. This prolific writer and itinerant troubadour became a legend in his own time and helped usher in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

His skills are succinctly assessed by Murray Kempton in the New York Review of Books: "As composer he was more collector than creator; the tunes that provide royalties to his heirs represent the mining of traditional themes rather than the search for fresh ones. His vocal range was severely limited; his tones were dry and his voice had the harsh and distancing timbre that Klein [in his biography of Guthrie] captures nicely when he says that listening to Guthrie was like biting into a lemon."

Kempton also suggested that Guthrie's status as a legendary folk hero belies the reality of the artist's life. He was not a dirt farmer, his family were townsfolk. Although he hung out with hobos, he eventually shied away from boxcar travel because hitching rides on the highway was much safer. He earned his meals picking songs in saloons, not picking fruit in the fields with the dust bowl refugees whose plight he described in song. "The roving life was a choice rather than a necessity, and more a flight from family tragedy than from otherwise hopeless poverty," Kempton concluded.

Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okema, Oklahoma. His father, Charles, had a successful real estate business, but his business failed when more aggressive traders moved in on the heels of an oil boom. His mother, Nora, showed signs of increasing mental instability during Guthrie's youth and she was committed to a state mental institution after a fire (which she may have started) severely burned Charles. When Charles left town, Guthrie, at age 14, was left to drift on his own. He and his older brother Roy took up residence with a poor family and he attended high school, worked at odd jobs, and learned to play harmonica. A couple of years later he hit the road, a pattern that would be repeated throughout his life.

Guthrie learned many old-time songs by listening to his mother sing, but generally, his immediate family was not musically inclined. He was taught to play guitar by his uncle Jeff Guthrie and worked with him on a short-lived traveling show. Later, in 1937, he had a radio show with his cousin Jack Guthrie on KFVD in Los Angeles. He moved to New York and was popular on several "hillbilly" radio shows that were popular at the time but he left the radio business when he was not allowed to perform his more sensitive, politically-oriented songs.

In 1941 he was employed briefly by the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon to write songs about the building of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. His biographer, Joe Klein, called this the most productive period of his life--in one month he wrote nearly a song per day, including the last of his dust bowl ballads, "Pastures of Plenty," a song than many consider his best. He occasionally joined Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in performances by the Almanac Singers, a song collective which, as they were described by The Progressive, "attempted to translate folk sources into materials that would inspire working people to create a socialist America through their unions."

Guthrie wrote more than songs. He wrote two major autobiographical works as well as songbooks. He was an occasional journalist and an avid letter writer; he wrote in book margins, drew and scribbled on calendars, notebooks, and endless scraps of paper. Joe Klein tells of being overwhelmed by a room of file cabinets filled with unpublished material when Marjorie, Guthrie's second wife, agreed to let him write Guthrie's definitive biography.

Guthrie's best-received book, Bound for Glory, an autobiography of his early years, was published in 1943. It is a vivid tale told in the artist's own down-home dialect, with the flare and imagery of a true storyteller. Library Journal complained about the "Too careful reproduction of illiterate speech." But Clifton Fadiman, reviewing the book in the New York Times, paid the author a fine tribute: "Some day people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world."

Guthrie was first recorded in 1940 by Alan Lomax, who had become enamored with rural southern folk music while traveling the South with his father, John Lomax, who was making archival recordings of the music of Southern black prisoners. In 1940, Lomax, who was assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, recorded a collection of Guthrie interviews and songs for the Library. The recordings were eventually released in 1964 by Electra. These recordings are essential Guthrie listening. Also in 1940, Victor Records recorded another vital collection, the Dust Bowl Ballads. SL In 1944 Moses Asch, a recording pioneer with a love for American folk music, arranged a series of recording sessions at which Guthrie, backed occasionally by Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and Leadbelly, recorded over 150original and traditional folk songs. Many of these early recordings were released on Asch's Folkways label and are still available today, including three volumes of children's songs called Songs to Grow On. SL The last 15 years of Guthrie's life were spent in the hospital suffering from the degenerative effects of the inherited disease Huntington's chorea. During this time, the 1950s and 1960s, folk music became a major trend and Guthrie became a living legend, his bedside visited by aspiring folk singers like Bob Dylan, who celebrated the man in his "Song to Woody." On one weekend visit home he taught Arlo Guthrie, his son from his second marriage and a successful folk singer in his own right, the radical verses he had written to "This Land is your Land," which he felt were in danger of being lost now that the song was being suggested as a replacement for the "Star Spangled Banner" as the national anthem.

As the songwriter lay dying, slowly losing the use of his limbs, his ability to speak and focus his eyes, his songs began to achieve the wide recognition they deserved. Popular folk performers like the Weavers, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary were recording Woody Guthrie songs. One of the last songs Guthrie wrote, about a year after he had entered the hospital, was "I Ain't Dead Yet." The song is symbolic of his indomitable spirit--which refused to give up when faced with life's many hardships--and his penchant for turning hardship into song.

by Tim LaBorie

Woody Guthrie's Career

Held a variety of odd jobs, including newsboy, junk collector, milkman, shoe shiner, service station attendant, sigh painter, and real estate agent; appeared with cousin, Jack Guthrie, on daily radio programs on KFVD, Los Angeles, beginning 1937; also appeared on radio programs broadcast out of New York City; performed in waterfront saloons, picket lines, migratory camps, army camps, union halls, on ski rows, and at country fairs,dances, rodeos, and carnivals; recording artist, 1940--; also author of books, including autobiography, Bound for Glory, and of numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, including People's World and the Daily Worker. Military service: U.S. Merchant Marine, 1942-45; U.S. Army Air Forces, 1945-46.

Woody Guthrie's Awards

Fellowship from Julius Rosenwald Fund, 1943, to "write books, ballads, songs, and novels that will help people to know each other's work better."

Famous Works

Recent Updates

August 14, 2005: A music festival honoring Guthrie is scheduled for August 14, 2005, at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, New Jersey, where Guthrie lived for a time in the 1950s. Source: Associated Press, http://hosted.ap.org, May 2, 2005.

Further Reading



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