Biographies Woody Guthrie

Image: Woody Guthrie
[Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, facing front, playing guitar]. New York World Telegram and Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-113276.

Woodrow Wilson ("Woody") Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma and died on October 3, 1967 in Brooklyn, New York.

One of the foremost chroniclers of American working class life through song, Guthrie has exerted a profound influence on folk and rock musicians from Bob Dylan to Wilco. Among Guthrie's most well-known songs are "Pastures of Plenty," "Bound for Glory" and "This Land is Your Land," the latter of which, by virtue of its popularity, has become something of an "alternative national anthem" in the United States.

During his childhood, Guthrie experienced intermittent periods of comfort and extreme hardship. His older sister, Clara, died in a fire in 1919. His mother, who suffered from Huntington's Chorea, (a degenerative, neurological disease which would eventually take the singer-songwriter's own life at the age of 55) was sent to an insane asylum when Guthrie was just a teenager. He quickly learned to survive by his fists and wits.

Guthrie is primarily known today for his music. But despite growing up singing songs at home with his family, his first serious creative impulses were towards drawing and painting. Guthrie initially made his living as a professional sign painter, hitchhiking or riding freight trains from town to town plying his trade.

It was in his twenties that Guthrie started to learn to play the guitar. He crisscrossed the country making ends meet by playing in saloons and work camps during the Great Depression. On his travels, the musician absorbed and performed many of the old folk ballads he heard around him and wrote many new songs reflecting the daily pleasures and struggles of the ordinary people he met on his journeys. He also often improvised songs in direct response to his surroundings.

Listeners responded immediately to Guthrie's heartfelt, down-to-earth style. "His songs are deceptively simple," wrote the folk musician and Guthrie acolyte Pete Seeger in the preface to Guthrie's 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory. "Only after they have become part of your life do you realize how great they are. Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity." [1]

Guthrie was appalled by the inequalities he saw in society and conceived much of his music as a form of social protest. For example, the singer-songwriter composed "This Land is Your Land" in 1940 as a satirical response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which he considered to have little to do with his own experience of what it meant to be an American.

During that same year, Guthrie began what would become a longstanding relationship with the Library of Congress when he recorded four hours of songs and stories for the institution's Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center). Library staffer and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax undertook landmark recording sessions with Guthrie in the 1940s, when the singer-songwriter moved to New York. The institution also houses a decade's worth of correspondence (1940-1950) between the two men.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Guthrie, who mostly based himself in New York, pursued a high-profile broadcasting and recording career. He gained a reputation as an influential songwriter, performer and social activist. He became a magnet for many folk singers and other socially conscious artists, particularly as a result of his work with The Almanac Singers, a folk music group specializing in left-wing topical songs whose other founding members included Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays. Groups and solo acts like The Weavers and Seeger further helped to increase Guthrie's renown around the country and beyond by performing and recording his songs.

In 1952, Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington's Chorea. He continued to travel, perform and record as his health slowly deteriorated. Following his death, Guthrie was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame (1971) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988.)

Note

  1. Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943; reprint, New York: New American Library, 1983). [back to biography]

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Woody Guthrie
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