Woody GuthrieWoody Guthrie was the most important American folk music artist of the first half of the 20th century, in part because he turned out to be such a major influence on the popular music of the second half of the 20th century, a period when he himself was largely inactive.
July 14, 1912 - October 3, 1967
July 14, 1912 - October 3, 1967
His songs have been performed and recorded by a wide range of artists, including a veritable who's who of folksingers.
During his heyday, in the 1940s, he was a major-label recording artist, a published author, and a nationally broadcast radio personality. But the impression this creates, that he was a multi-media star, is belied by his personality and his politics. Restlessly creative and prolific, he wrote, drew, sang, and played constantly, but his restlessness also expressed itself in a disinclination to stick consistently to any one endeavor, particularly if it involved a conventional, cooperative approach.
Guthrie had begun to write his own songs as early as 1932. On April 14, 1935, he found inspiration in a natural disaster, when a major dust storm hit Pampa, as drought conditions and subsistence farming across the Great Plains combined to strip off tons of topsoil and send it flying into the wind, contributing to the financial catastrophe suffered by farmers during the Great Depression. Guthrie wrote "So Long It's Been Good to Know Yuh" (aka "Dusty Old Dust"), which was full of bitingly comic observations about the troubles suffered by people in the storm.
Meeting his cousin Leon Jerry "Oklahoma Jack" Guthrie in Los Angeles, Guthrie began performing with him, and the two were hired to do a radio program on the local station KFVD, launching the daily 15-minute program The Oklahoma and Woody Show on July 19, 1937.
In March 1940 Guthrie performed at a benefit for migrant workers sponsored by John Steinbeck at the Forrest Theater, California. His appearance was a sensation; with his demeanor and accent, he seemed the living embodiment of the Okies, and his songs and wry humor called to mind a combination of the country singer Jimmie Rogers and the homespun monologuist Will Rogers. At the event, Guthrie met a number of prominent folksingers, among them Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson, as well as the 20-year-old aspiring folksinger Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, the assistant in charge of the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress.
Lomax had other media connections that gave Guthrie greater exposure. On April 2, 1940, he presented Guthrie on his nationally broadcast CBS radio program, Columbia School of the Air, and later in the month Guthrie made the first of several appearances on another CBS show, The Pursuit of Happiness. Lomax also talked Guthrie up to RCA Victor Records, which signed him to a contract that resulted in the release of two albums, each consisting of three 78 RPM discs, in July 1940, Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1 and Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2.
In 1946, Guthrie played concerts under the auspices of People's Songs, an organization founded by Seeger and other folksingers as a clearinghouse to promote political folk songs. He also continued to record for Asch, who released a new album, Struggle: Documentary #1, and commissioned him to write a series of songs about Sacco and Vanzetti, the immigrant anarchists who had been convicted of a robbery in which two guards were killed and had been executed in 1927, their case long a cause célèbre of the American left. (The album was not released until 1960.)
Inspired by his daughter Cathy, Guthrie also had begun writing children's songs, and he recorded these for Asch as well, starting in February 1946. After being released later in the year on Asch's Disc Records label on the album Songs to Grow On: Nursery Days, these became among Guthrie's most popular recordings, and he made more of them. Work Songs to Grow On followed in 1947.
By late 1951, Guthrie's erratic behavior had led to his separation from his wife. On January 7, 1952, he did a recording session for Decca Records as part of proposed contract with the label, but his performing skills had deteriorated noticeably; the contract was withdrawn, and the recordings have never been released. This was Guthrie's last serious attempt to record, although there was a final session for Asch two years later that also proved fruitless. Guthrie was hospitalized on May 16, 1952, and was in and out of hospitals over the summer until a neurologist finally recognized his symptoms as Huntington's disease in September.
Since discovering that his mother had suffered from Huntington's disease shortly after her death, Guthrie had feared that he would inherit the illness, as he confided to friends on several occasions in the 1930s and '40s. By the late '40s, he had begun to exhibit symptoms of the disease, although, since his behavior had always been idiosyncratic, they were not recognized as such by him or others, and tended to be ascribed to excessive drinking.
On September 16, 1954, no longer able to function, Guthrie checked himself into Brooklyn State Hospital, where he had received his diagnosis two years earlier. This was a voluntary commitment that allowed him to leave the hospital on weekends, which he spent with his ex-wife Marjorie Guthrie. On May 23, 1956, Guthrie checked himself out, intending to hit the road again, but within days he was arrested for vagrancy in New Jersey and involuntarily committed to Greystone Park Hospital, where he remained for five years, until Marjorie Guthrie was able to get him moved back to Brooklyn State, an easier commute from her home in Coney Island.
Guthrie was moved to Creedmore State Hospital in Queens, NY, in July 1966 and put under the care of a doctor specifically studying Huntington's disease. He died there on, October 3, 1967 at the age of 55.
Guthrie defined an era in his Dust Bowl ballads, his outlaw tales, his work and labor songs, anti-war songs, children's songs, political songs, and a host of love songs and songs that touched on philosophy, geography and the hard work of living day to day in an emerging industrial world. He wrote constantly, a bit like a maverick beat reporter, and new poems, writings, drawings and even previously unknown songs kept turning up into the 21st century. In 2012, the centennial year of his birth, several books, anthologies and box sets of his work appeared, and Guthrie was firmly enshrined as a one-of-a-kind American icon and treasure.