This is the 7th in a series of articles about the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame’s (FARHOF) inaugural class of inductees. The first induction ceremonies will take place in April although an exact date has not yet been announced. This article is about Solo Legacy inductee Woody Guthrie. A solo legacy artist is a performer whose initial impact on the genre was at least 45 years prior to the year of Induction.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma to middle-class parents. He was named after the soon-to-be 28th President of the United States. His early years were filled with music, singing, and plenty of money. In his book Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait, Woody recalled:
“Okemah was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.”
As with most such towns, the boom turned to bust and in the 1920s the town’s fortunes had changed. The town and its inhabitants, according to Woody, were left feeling “busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted.” The Guthrie family’s fortunes also took a turn for the worse. Woody’s father’s business was real estate, but his business collapsed with the town’s downturn. Sister Clara died in a fire in 1919 and a few years later mother Nora was committed to a mental hospital with what was thought to be a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t until long after her death it was discovered she had Huntington’s disease.
By the time the series of severe dust storms struck Oklahoma creating what was known as the Dust Bowl, Woody had already worked several jobs, busked music on street corners, and married his first wife, Mary Jennings. But it was during the Dust Bowl period he joined thousands of other Okies and others in migrating to California in search of work.
Songwriters are often given the advice to “write what you know.” Woody’s songs often focus on the working man and his family, as those are the ones he would meet in his travels. He also wrote about the beauty he saw in the places he had been.
Woody’s iconic song “This Land Is Your Land” is a perfect example of how he would “tell it like it is.” He wrote it as a reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song he thought was too sappy, too patriotic, and too blind to the hard life many Americans were experiencing as the Great Depression entered its 10th year in 1939.
The song originally contained two verses making reference to hungry people standing in line at the relief office and “no trespassing” signs intended to keep those same people away, presumably from seeking work or handouts. Woody debuted the song on his radio show in 1944 but removed those two verses because he wanted the song to focus on being inclusive, on “this land (being) made for you and me” no matter who you were.
The song still celebrates the redwood forests, the Gulf Stream waters, the diamond deserts with sparking sands, and the endless skies that give America its magnificent beauty. These are things that we all can take pride in. Yet, with the two verses added back in – as has been the case in recent years – “This Land Is Your Land” calls for an America that is spacious, stunning in its beauty, and compassionate at its heart.
“Pastures Of Plenty” is another song demonstrating his connection with the poor working men and women. From the opening lines “It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed/My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road” to the closing “My land I’ll defend with my life if it be/Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free,” Woody tells us of the life lived by the migrants who tended our and harvested our crops.
There is also “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)” telling the story of immigrants who worked in the fields only to be sent back once the crops were all in. Woody wrote the song after reading an article about the crash in The New York Times. He lamented not only the treatment of the migrant workers but also the fact they went unnamed. He did not know the local coverage via the Fresno Bee did list all the known names of the deportees.
Yet, the song did not lament just those killed in the crash and America’s attitude toward the migrant farm laborers. The opening lines of “The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting/The oranges piled in their creosote dumps” was a protest against the then current government policies that paid farmers to destroy crops to keep farm production low and prices high. In a world where so many hungry people lived, Woody thought it is just plain wrong to destroy food or render it inedible.
From kids songs like “Do Re Mi” and “My Daddy (Flies A Ship In The Sky)” to songs about traveling without means like “Hobo’s Lullaby” to songs to rally the troops in WWII like “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” Woody wrote to the people and for the people. He wrote about the human experience and human emotion in a way that few others have been able to do.
Perhaps John Steinbeck said it best about Woody Guthrie:
Woody has often been said to support communism in the 1930s and 1940s. However, he never publicly declared himself to be a communist. It seems more likely he supported any movement that sought equality and opportunity for workers. Still, like Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, and other artists in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the accusation of being a communist was as damning as actually being one.
Woody’s health was also deteriorating by the late 1940s and his behavior became erratic. He burned his arm while lighting a campfire in the early 1950s. He regained the use of his arm but was never able to play the guitar again. In 1952 he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which he inherited from his mother. In the final years of his life he became isolated except for family. For the last two years of his life, he was unable to speak and communicated by rolling his eyes or moving his arms.
Woody Guthrie died from Huntington’s disease on October 3, 1967. The same month his son, Arlo Guthrie, recorded a demo of “Alice’s Restaurant” that would soon make him famous in his own right. According to a “family joke,” it was the last thing Woody heard before he died. Since the song was a protest of the Vietnam War draft, Woody may well have died happy knowing his legacy was in good hands.
Next up: Josh White