Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie
In the Hills of Oklahoma and the Plains of Texas
Named after the man who was to become the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow "Woody" Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, to Nora and Charley Guthrie. Woody was the third of the couple's five children, but Charley had no trouble supporting his growing family. His real estate business did well and he also dabbled in politics.
From the beginning, music was a part of Woody's life. Often, Charley and Nora would "sing apart and together on hymns, spiritual songs, songs about how to save your lost and homeless soul and self. The color of the songs was the Red Man, the Black Man, and the White folks."1
Along with music, tragedy also touched his early years. When Woody was just a toddler, the Guthries' newly built home burnt down, even before the family had a chance to move in. Then in 1919, Woody's sister Clara burned to death. For some time before this accident, Nora had been acting erratically. Afterward, Woody noted, "my mother's nerves gave away like an overloaded bridge." She even had occasional violent episodes and may have set Charley on fire in 1927, a situation that resulted in a long and painful convalescence for him and a commitment to the state mental hospital in Norman for her.2
Before these troubles beset the family, they had already seen hard times. Charley had lost his land holdings and much of his self-esteem during the oil boom that occurred in the eastern part of Oklahoma after World War I. Although he held a series of jobs after this loss, none paid well, and the Guthries fell into poverty. When Charley left Okemah in the wake of his injury, he took the two younger children, Mary Jo and George; but both Woody and his older brother Roy remained behind to fend for themselves.
At this point Woody first made money with his musical ability--singing, dancing, and playing the harmonica and spoons on the street for change. He also searched the alleys and trash piles of Okemah looking for scrap to sell. On occasion, his friends' families took him in for extended periods, but he was often on his own. During this time, he also began wandering, hoboing to the Gulf of Mexico and back, as well as making other assorted excursions in the area.
Then in 1929, Woody joined Charley in Pampa, Texas, in the panhandle region near Amarillo. Some other family members lived there also. Jeff Guthrie, Charley's half-brother, taught Woody how to play the guitar after he moved there. Uncle Jeff was a fine musician, and he had even won some regional fiddling contests. Although the two often played together for fun, Uncle Jeff's ability was far above Woody's. Instead, Woody found other beginning musicians to play with and formed the Corncob Trio. One of the members was Matt Jennings, whose younger sister Mary caught Woody's eye. They married in 1933 and eventually had three children together.
Times continued to be tough for Woody. By the time of his marriage, many changes had come to the region. The Great Depression had already swept across the nation, and a drought hit the plains in the early 1930s. Over-plowing had removed the natural prairie grasses, and the wind swept up the dry earth in great waves that could blot out the sun. One journalist who came to the area famously dubbed it "The Dust Bowl."
In the mid-1930s, Woody first realized the power of music to capture the truth about people and places. In thinking back about this time, he wrote, "there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about." One of his first songs to reflect what he saw happening around him became one of his most famous, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You."3
Going to California
Due to the combined hardships of the Great Depression and the drought, many people from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri packed up their belongings and traveled west in search of work. An estimated four hundred thousand made their way to California.
Already somewhat used to rambling and with a good reason this time, Woody hoboed his way to Los Angeles in 1936, where he eventually formed a musical partnership with his cousin Jack Guthrie. They performed country-western tunes around town and promoted themselves on radio station KFVD. Later, Jack dropped out of show business for a time and Woody started singing with Maxine Crissman, whom he dubbed "Lefty Lou." This pairing was so successful that he was able to bring Mary and their children to Los Angeles in 1937.
Many of the songs Woody and Lefty Lou performed were old-style tunes such as "A Picture from Life's Other Side" and "Boll Weevil." But Woody also began featuring some of his own original compositions on their shows; of these, both "Talking Dustbowl Blues" and "Do Re Mi" explored and exposed the harsh reality of the California-as-promised-land myth.
Although the perceptions of California as a land of unmitigated opportunity had brought a rush of agricultural laborers from the South and Southwest in the mid-1930s, the reality was quite different. The great farms that stretched across California's rich valleys did need pickers, but so many hands were available that wages were pushed steadily downward, even if a family could find steady employment harvesting the state's many seasonal crops. The pickers lived in their cars, tents, or shacks they built out of whatever materials they could find. These camps were sometimes called "Hoovervilles" and the people in them "Okies."
Although Woody never lived in one of these camps, he did make his way to California as a "Dust Bowl refugee" and traveled around the state singing to the migrant laborers during the spring of 1938. He also sang at government camps that gave these people some measure of dignity, health, and safety. Joining him was Will Geer, an actor and earnest left-winger who helped Woody better understand the injustice of an economic system that would allow Americans to live in such poverty.
New York Town
When Geer left California for New York and a stint playing Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road, he urged Woody to visit. A few months later, opportunities in Los Angeles dried up, so Woody moved his family back to Texas before making his way up to New York City in early 1940.
Almost immediately, his career skyrocketed. At a benefit for the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers in early March, Woody met Alan Lomax, the assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. Impressed with Woody's songwriting ability, Lomax arranged for a recording session for the Library at the end of the month. Afterward, he helped Woody get a recording contract with Victor, which resulted in the album Dust Bowl Ballads. These recording triumphs were also matched by his burgeoning radio career; he even became the host for Model Tobacco's weekly program Pipe Smoking Time.
This success changed Woody's life in several ways. Now, he had enough money to bring Mary and their children to New York, where they rented a comfortable apartment in uptown Manhattan. For the first time in decades, Woody was not living in poverty. Another change was the unaccustomed pressure of having a steady job that required conforming to others' standards and this restriction weighed heavily on him. Soon, he wrote, "I got disgusted with the whole sissified and nervous rules of censorship on all of my songs and ballads, and drove off down the road across the southern states again."4
With Mary and the children in tow, Woody eventually ended up in California for several months before traveling up to Oregon to work for the Bonneville Power Administration as an "Information Consultant" on a documentary about the dams being built there. During this time, he wrote twenty-six songs, including "Roll On, Columbia" and "Pastures of Plenty."
In June 1941, after this month-long stint in the Pacific Northwest, Woody returned to New York City without Mary and the children. There he immediately joined the Almanac Singers, whose other members were Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell. They played benefits, appeared on radio programs, made albums, and sang out against "Hitlerism and fascism homemade and imported . . . and made up songs to pay honor and tribute to the story of the trade union workers around the world."5 Woody continued to perform with the group until late 1942, when it disbanded.
During this time, Woody's personal and professional situation changed drastically. After he met dancer Marjorie Mazia in early 1942, the two became romantically involved and she eventually became pregnant with his child. Unfortunately, both she and Woody were still married to other people, causing some discord in their lives. Woody was also writing his autobiographical novel Bound for Glory, and it and his fourth child appeared at roughly the same time in early 1943.
World War II was underway when Woody first came to New York. After America entered the fight in late 1941, he sang songs against the Nazis, such as "Round and Round Hitler's Grave" and "Reuben James." But he became more directly involved in the spring of 1943 when he joined the Merchant Marine. He shipped out three times and was torpedoed twice. Then in May 1945, he was drafted into the Army just as the war came to an end, although he returned to civilian life by the end of the year.
Earlier, while visiting home between his Merchant Marine voyages in the spring of 1944, Woody met and recorded for Moses Asch, who ran a succession of independent labels that would eventually become the legendary Folkways Records. They continued their relationship until Woody stopped recording in the early 1950s.
By 1946, Woody's family life was stronger than it had been in decades. A year earlier, he and Marjorie had finally married. While she worked as a dancer during the day, he stayed home often and played with their daughter Cathy Ann. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in February 1947 when the little girl died in an electrical fire. The couple went on as best as they could and eventually had three other children.
As the 1940s came to an end, Woody still participated in various benefits and wrote hundreds of songs, stories, and poems. He also made several starts at another novel but was having trouble concentrating for long periods. In addition, his behavior--never normal by society's standards--became more erratic.
By the early 1950s, his health had deteriorated to the point where he was committed for short periods to various hospitals in New York City. No one could pinpoint his problem, although alcohol and schizophrenia were suggested as the cause of his trouble. Woody's condition put a terrible strain on his marriage and he and Marjorie eventually separated.
During the same period, when he was not in the hospital, he bummed around, visiting friends and family with little planning and often without invitation. While in the Los Angeles area in late 1952, he met a young woman named Anneke Van Kirk and formed a romantic relationship with her that resulted in a child and marriage. But as Woody's condition continued to worsen, their relationship deteriorated and ended a few years later.
Greystone and Beyond
In the fall of 1952, doctors at Brooklyn State Hospital definitely diagnosed Woody as having the same condition as his mother--Huntington's Chorea, a hereditary degenerative disease that affects the nervous system and eventually results in death. At the time, he did not fully accept this diagnosis and would check himself in and out of the hospital to wander New York as he had for over a decade.
Then in May 1956, he was involuntarily committed to Greystone Park, a mental institution in New Jersey. There he remained for the next five years as he worsened to the point where he could not play the guitar, type, or even hold a pen.
In the late 1950s, an admirer named Bob Gleason would pick Woody up on the weekends and take him to East Orange, New Jersey, where the singer would receive visitors. It was there that Bob Dylan came to meet Woody in early 1961. Through the efforts of Dylan and other performers such as Joan Baez and Tom Paxton throughout the 1960s, Woody's songs achieved a wider audience than ever before.
However, as his fame increased so did the severity of his condition. In 1961, Marjorie moved Woody back to Brooklyn State Hospital, where he would be closer to her and their children. By 1965, he could communicate only by pointing to cards reading "Yes" or "No." Finally, after almost two decades of suffering, he died on October 3, 1967.
By Mark Allan Jackson
About the Author
Mark Allan Jackson teaches English and Folklore at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie, published by the University Press of Mississippi.
1 Woody Guthrie, ""My Life," in American Folksong: Woody Guthrie (New York: Disc Company of America, 1947; reprint, New York: Oak Publications, 1961, 2 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943; reprint, New York: New American Library, 1983), 178 (page citation is to the reprint edition).
4 Guthrie, "My Life," 5.
5 Ibid., 6.