Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, July 21, 2012

This Land is Your Land: Centennial of Woody Guthrie Birthday

July 14, 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the great Diesel Era musician and activist, Woody Guthrie. There’s no way in the space of the blog that I can give a sufficient biography of the great Woody Guthrie so I want to touch briefly on his life.

Named after President Woodrow Wilson, Woody Guthrie was born in the small town of Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912 to Nora and Charles Edward Guthrie. One might find it ironic that the parents of Woody Guthrie, being that he was one of the strongest advocates for social justice, were on the Radical Right of politics. His father, Charles Guthrie was a member of the KKK and known to have participated in the lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson.

Woody Guthrie's early life was hard. His family suffered from several fires, including one that caused the loss of his family's home in Okemah. There’s been some speculation that his mother Nora set the fires, who was afflicted with Huntington's disease, which can include not only muscular disorders but also a variety of psychological disorders. Eventually Nora Guthrie was committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, where she died in 1930 from Huntington's disease.

At the time of his mother’s institutionalization Woody was 14 and he along with siblings were living alone in Oklahoma because their father was living and working in Pampa, Texas to attempt to raise enough money to repay debts he had racked up from bad real estate deals. The young 14-year old Woody Guthrie worked odd jobs and often had to beg for meals and sleep with family friends.

Around this time, Woody started showing a talent for music as he learned to play the harmonica by ear. Woody would use musical talent to play in exchange for money or food. Though he never graduated high school, his teachers described him as being very bright. His friends recalled that he was also an avid reader.

When he was 18, his father sent for him to come to Texas where he met Mary Jennings, who would become his first wife. They had three children, all of whom died during childhood. During the Dust Bowl, he went off to California looking for work.

It was during this time while in California that Woody wrote protest songs for the pro-New Deal station KFVD. Because of his employment at the radio station, he could afford to bring his wife Mary to live with him. While at KFVD, Woody Guthrie met the newscaster Ed Robbin who introduced Woody Guthrie to Left-wing politics. Though Woody Guthrie was never a member of the Communist Party he did write for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker in a column titled "Woody Sez."

When World War II broke out, the radio station owners didn’t want Robbin and Guthrie "spinning apologia" for the Soviet Union so they both left the station. Without work and few employment prospects Woody and Mary then returned to Texas. Although Mary was happy to stay in Texas Woody was not and followed Will Geer, who had met through Robbin in California, to New York City.

It was while in New York that Woody Guthrie wrote his most famous song, This Land Is Your Land. He was tired of the overly played God Bless America and felt like it didn’t reflect the reality of so many Americans. So he penned This Land is Your Land to the tune of the gospel song Oh My Loving Brother.

Guthrie had the traveling bug, left New York, and traveled up the West Coast during 1941. In Washington State, he met up with Pete Segar, which would be a major development in his career. Together along with other musicians formed the Almanac Singers, set up a studio in New York City, and continued to write protest songs. It was in 1943 that Woody and Mary were divorced.

During World War II Guthrie served first with the Merchant Marines but because of his Communist associations became ineligible to stay and was drafted by the Army. Upon furlough, he married Marjorie Greenblatt. After the war, they had four children, one of whom being Arlo who would later have a successful musical career of his own with his most famous song being his recording of The City of New Orleans.

During the 1950s and 60s Guthrie developed Huntington’s disease just as his mother had and died from complications associated with it on October 3, 1967.

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