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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making

In an essay Guthrie shared with Lomax in November, 1940 he wrote:

"I got a boy that'll be eight year old in just seven more years... You know I aint seen him in a long time. In fact I aint been around that guy much since he's been my boy. I have to set and study right real hard to think of a being a dad. But you know how it was — I had to leave — couldn't take them with me down the road — so then I couldn't make a living for them there in the dust country, so I just lit out, and am still lit out — but thank heaven I've learned a little bit, so the time wasn't plumb wasted."

From Essay from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, ca. November 1940 (page 1).

Guthrie was living in New York City at this time. He was looking for work while his wife, Mary, and their three children were living with her parents in Texas. Soon, Guthrie established himself as an important folk musician. He was making more money than he ever had before and sent for his family to join him. But soon, Guthrie suddenly decided to leave New York City. He bought a car and drove his family to California. He sent Lomax postcards and letters from the road:

"We're all right for the shape we're in. The wife feels better out here but she likes New York City paychecks better than what I been able to carve out of the mountains so far. She just wasn't in New York long enough to get right good and sick of it.... Tell the Gates and Burl and Earl and Pete and Dave and everybody I said howdy. Sure a fine bunch of fellers. If I was twins so that I could be up there and on the road at the same time but the way it is it looks like it's got to be the road."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, January 22, 1941 (page 2).

Throughout his life, Guthrie seemed to put his singing, urge to ramble, and political beliefs before his family. When he was living with his family in Texas, he would take off for days, weeks, or months at a time. When he was living in Los Angeles, he left home just days before his son, Will Rogers Guthrie, was born, to perform for a group of cotton pickers in Arvin, California.

Guthrie's family had come to Los Angeles in 1937, when he got a job singing on a radio program. But when he and his singing partner ran out of steam a year later, they canceled the program and Guthrie hopped a train leaving his family behind. After a few weeks on the road, he returned to the radio station and persuaded the owner to give him his own radio program. But when Guthrie refused to tone down his Communist opinions, the show was cancelled and he moved his family back to Texas.

His biographers have written that Guthrie wasn't directed by a sense of responsibility the way most people are. Nor did he have a typical appreciation of money. Even when he was living on the road without a job, he would often give what money he had to needy strangers. Eventually, he and Mary divorced. Guthrie's life with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, and their children was complicated by a debilitating disease.

  • To what extent do you think that Guthrie's instinct for rambling contributed to his character, sense of purpose, and accomplishments?
  • To what extent do you think that Guthrie's indifference to money contributed to his character and accomplishments?
  • Do you think the fact that Guthrie's behavior and decisions caused his family hardships detracts from what he accomplished?
  • Do you think that Guthrie could have accomplished what he did while also being a more responsible husband and father?
  • To what or whom do you think Guthrie did feel responsible?
  • Do you think that Guthrie should have been more responsible towards his family even if meant that he wouldn't have been a writer and performer?
  • Do you think it's possible for a great artist to also have a traditional family life or are the responsibilities of family and the requirements of a creative life at odds with each other? Explain.