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Woody Guthrie

singer, songwriter, radio personality, novelist

Woody Guthrie

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912, the second son born to Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father, a cowboy, land speculator, and politician, taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes. His mother was also musically inclined.

Guthrie's early years were filled with tragedy -- the accidental death of his older sister Clara, the family's financial ruin, and the institutionalization and eventual loss of his mother. These tragedies helped spur a "rambling urge" in Guthrie, and in 1929 he left Okemah for the Texas panhandle town of Pampa. There, he met Mary Jennings, the younger sister of fellow musician Matt Jennings. The two were married in 1933, and eventually had three children -- Gwendolyn Gail, Carolyn Sue, and William Rogers.

Guthrie's first attempt at a musical career came when he, Matt Jennings, and Cluster Baker frmed the Corn Cob Trio and, later, the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. Unfortunately, the trio's attempt to earn a living with music began just as the Great Dust Storm Era began, and in 1937 he was forced to hit the road in search of work, while his family stayed behind in Pampa.

Guthrie eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he landed a job on KFVD radio singing "old-time" traditional songs, along with some original songs. Along with singing partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman, Guthrie began attracting widespread public attention for both his musical talent and his commentary on topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising Christianity in general, criminal-hero "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and the union organizers that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers. By late-1937 Guthrie was able to bring his wife and children to California.

In 1940 Guthrie made his way to New York City, where folklorist Alan Lomax recorded him in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He also recorded his first album of original songs, Dust Bowl Ballads, for RCA Victor, and over the next decade he recorded hundreds of discs for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. As Guthrie's fame grew, so also did his circle of musical friends, which included Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, among others. This group of friends formed themselves into a loosely organized folk group called The Almanac Singers, which expressed its social and political beliefs in its songs, many of which were written by Guthrie. By the end of 1940 he had brought his family to New York City.

Despite enjoying success, Guthrie quickly became disillusioned with New York City and, in 1941, headed for Portland, Oregon, this time taking his family with him. In Portland, Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write and record songs for a documentary film project about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. The result was Columbia River Songs, which included the songs “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done.” After completing this project, Guthrie returned to New York City, leaving his family in Portland. In New York, Guthrie joined the Almanacs on a national tour that ended in Los Angeles. There, Guthrie was briefly reunited with his family, but Mary soon left him behind and moved herself and their children to El Paso, Texas. Guthrie returned to New York, and he and Mary were divorced in 1943.

Soon after returning to New York City, Guthrie began courting Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. The two were married in 1945 and eventually had four children -- Cathy Ann (who died in a house fire at age 4), Arlo, Joady, and Nora Lee. This relationship kept Guthrie in place for a significant length of time, allowing him to turn out a great number of songs, writings, drawings, paintings, poems, and prose pieces. His first novel, Bound for Glory, a semi-autobiographical account of his Dust Bowl years was published in 1943 to critical acclaim; it was made into a film in 1976.

During World War II, Guthrie served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army. His songwriting did not suffer, however, as he composed hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war, and historic ballads to rally the troops, including “All You Fascists Bound To Lose,” “Talking Merchant Marine,” and “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” He also began working on a second novel, Sea Porpoise, and was enlisted by the Army to write songs about the dangers of venereal diseases, which were published in brochures distributed to sailors.

In 1946, Guthrie settled his family in Coney Island, New York, and it was there that he composed and recorded Songs to Grow On For Mother and Child and Work Songs To Grow On, both of which won him success and recognition as an innovative writer of children’s songs. Thanks to his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, Guthrie was also inspired to write a series of songs reflecting Jewish culture, including “Hanuka Dance,” “The Many and The Few,” and “Mermaid’s Avenue.”

By the late-1940's Guthrie's behavior was becoming increasingly erratic, moody, and violent. It was not known at the time, but he was beginning to show symptoms of Huntington's Chorea, a degenerative neurological disease that, as discovered much later, had also caused the mental deterioration of Guthrie's mother. In 1952, his symptoms prompted him to leave his family and head for California, where he subsequently met and married Anneke Van Kirk, with whom he had a daughter, Lorina Lynn.

Life in California was less than ideal, however, as Guthrie found himself increasingly out of sorts with the entertainment industry due to a combination of his deteriorating mental health and his "anti-establishment" views. Unable to get regular work in California, he moved to Florida, where he found accomodations with fellow activist Stetson Kennedy. There, he worked on a third novel, Seeds of Man, and composed songs inspired by a heightened awareness of racial and environmental issues.

From Florida, Guthrie embarked on another series of road trips before finally returning to New York City with Anneke. With his condition becoming increasingly worse, he found himself hospitalized several times and treated for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia. Arrested for vagrancy in New Jersey in 1954, he was admitted into Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, where he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea. Anneke divorced him 1956, but by then he had amassed a huge circle of friends and admirers and was seldom alone; ex-wife Marjorie had also returned to his life by this time. He spent the rest of his life in and out of hospitals, and died at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York, on October 3, 1967. His ashes were sprinkled off the shores of Coney Island, where he spent his happiest and most productive years.


Biography Channel
The Official Woody Guthrie Website

See Also

"Pretty Boy" Floyd
Grand Coulee Dam
World War II

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The Robinson Library >> Singers

This page was last updated on 01/22/2019.