Skip to: site menu | section menu | main content

Welcome To Democracy And Socialism .Com

Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler

- Albert Einstein

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

Will Geer

Woody Guthrie was an American singer, songwriter, folk musician, painter, and a novelist. Despite of his difficult and tragic life, he continued his struggle for social justice, peace, human rights and workers' rights till the end. He was a passionate fighter against the evils of Fascism.

Woody was born on July 14, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the second son of Charles Edward Guthrie and Nora Belle Sherman. His parents named him Woodrow Wilson, after the 28th President of the United States.

His father was a land speculator, a local politician and a cowboy. He taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs and Scottish folk tunes. His mother also musically inclined, had the same influence on Woody.

When Charles ran as a Democrat candidate for office in their county, he was always accompanied by his son Woody. Woody became interested in social and political matters at an early age.

At the age of seven, Woody lost his older sister Clara in a coal-oil fire which was used for heating their house. In another incident, they lost their family home in Okemah. Similarly but at a different time, his father was severely burned; and when woody was 14, his mother died from complications of the then diagnosed Huntington’s disease.

It was during the Great Depression of the 1930s that his father left Oklahoma for Pampa, Texas to work and to pay off his debts from failed real estate deals. In Oklahoma, Woody and his siblings relied on their eldest brother Roy’s financial support. To help his family, Woody worked odd jobs around Okemah, begged for food and slept at the home of family friends.

Woody befriended a boy named John Woods, a harmonica player who taught him how to play the instrument. After buying his own harmonica, he walked around town and played songs for a coin or a sandwich. He dropped out of school, but being a bright and an eager reader, he learned music by ear and soon played old ballads and many traditional English and Scot songs.

After a while, Woody’s father sent for his son to come to Pampa, Texas and asked him to continue his studies. But the eighteen year old Woody was reluctant to attend high school classes. He spent much time busking on the streets and reading at the Pampa’s city hall library. He was a flourishing musician; regularly training and playing at different events with his half-uncle Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle player.

In 1933, he married Mary Jennings, the younger sister of a friend and a musician Matt Jennings. They had 3 children, Gwendolyn, Sue, and Bill, they divorced in 1943.

The onslaught of the Great Dust Storm of 1935, combined with drought and the Great Depression forced thousands of desperate farmers and unemployed workers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas, to head west looking for work. Woody moneyless and hungry joined them, leaving his wife Mary behind.

In a long and hard journey; by cargo trains, getting lifts and even by foot got him to California. In exchange for food and lodging, Woody painted signs, played guitar and sang in saloons down the way. Many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by these working class families. “The Grapes of Wrath”, a realist novel written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939 focuses on these families.

During that period, over a million poor migrants, so-called “Okies”, arrived in California. First they faced intense hatred, contempt, and even physical antagonism from some misinformed and desperate Californians who thought that these migrants would compete with their jobs and their bread. It was in 1937 that Woody finally found a job in KFVD radio, and became popular alongside his singing partner Maxine Crissman. They attracted much public attention and became popular mainly amongst the thousands of “Okies” living in migrant camps, made of cardboards and tin shelters.

The local radio also provided Woody a forum from which he would be able to denounce subjects ranging from corrupt politicians, businessmen, and lawyers, to praise advocates for social justice, and union organizers fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California’s agricultural sectors. His songs all reflect his appetite to provide a voice for the voiceless.

In 1940, by the invitation of Will Geer, Woody headed east to New York City. He was embraced by his comrades and friends, which formed a folk group, Almanac. The group included Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax, Arthur Stern, Sis Cunningham, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie. They were all part of the “Popular Front”, an alliance of liberals and leftists including the Communist Party USA, who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and to promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers’ rights.

Woody made his first recording with the financing of Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. And his second album Dust Bowl Ballads was recorded by “RCA Victor Records” in Camden New Jersey.

Woody was tired of the radio overplay “God Bless America”. He thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent. Partly motivated by his experience during the cross-country journey and his dislike for the song, he wrote his famous song “This Land is Your Land”, in February 1940 and recorded in 1944, but was not published until 1945.

In spite of his success, Woody became increasingly disappointed and restless about censorships in New York radio and the entertainment industry. Leaving New York City with his wife and 3 children in tow, Woody headed out to Portland, Oregon. There he wrote the notable collection of songs, “Colombia River Songs” for a documentary about the Grand Coulee Dam in 1941. But by the occurrence of WWII, the Documentary’s production was postponed until 1949.

When his one month project contract in Oregon expired, Woody moved his family back to Tampa, Texas. Hoping to get back to New York City and on the radio, he hitch-hiked his way across the country. Woody’s constant traveling, performing, and lack of regular work took a hard toll on his family; bringing his first marriage to an end.

Back in New York City, saddened by the extent of death and destruction and moved by his passion against Fascism, Woody lobbied the US Army to accept him as a United Service Organizations (USO) musician instead of enlisting him as a soldier. But when his attempt failed, by the advice of his comrades Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi, he managed to enrol in the Merchant Marine. With the Slogan, “This Machine Kills Fascists” displayed on his guitar, Woody tripped with the crew and troops, served as a mess man and dishwasher and frequently sang, boosting their morals during transatlantic voyages. Woody wrote hundreds of anti- Hitler songs, war songs and ballads to rally the troops in the fight against Fascism, during WWII. Before the end of the War, he was dismissed due to his association with communists.

Back home in New York City, Woody met Marjorie Mazia, an activist, dancer and instructor at the prestigious Martha Graham Dance School. They fell in love and married in 1945. With Marjorie, as his second wife, they had 4 children, Cathy, Joady, Nora, and Arlo. Cathy died because of fire at the age of four; another fire tragedy that sent Woody to a severe sadness.

Through the late 1940s, Woody’s behaviour began to become more and more unpredictable, ill-tempered, and sometimes violent. This kind of behaviour created tensions both inside and outside of his family. In his professional life, it was the end of his proliferative productivity and creativity. Woody’s illness was eventually diagnosed as the Huntington disease, a neurological hereditary illness which had killed his mother about 26 years ago. By Marjorie’s suggestion, he left his family in Coney Island, New York, to hit the road with his protégé Ramblin Jack Elliot, for California. Woody and Marjorie finally divorced in 1953.

In California, Woody stayed at Will Geer’s property in Theatricum Botanicum which was populated largely by blacklisted singers and actors. There he met and married Anneke Van Kirk, who became his third wife; they had a daughter together, Lorina Lynn born in 1954. Lorina was his eighth child.

With the invitation of his friend and activist, Stetson Kennedy, Woody and Anneke headed to Florida to stay at his property in Beluthahatchee, for recreational purposes.

Woody’s health was worsening, while again another fire tragedy superimposed his misery. His right arm was hurt in an accidental campfire. Although his arm regained movement, he was never able to play the guitar again. The couple returned to New York City, where Woody and Anneke divorced in 1954.

Eventually Woody was hospitalized in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, New Jersey from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital until 1966, and until his death in 1967, at Creedmore Psychiatric Center, Queens, New York.

Woody’s second wife Marjorie re-entered his life and along with their children visited him regularly in the Hospital.

Woody died on October 3rd, his body was cremated, and ashes sunk beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, by Marjorie and the children.

Woody’s illness was not properly treated, due to a lack of information about the disease. His death triggered awareness of the disease and led Marjorie to help found the Committee to Combat Huntington’s disease, which became the Huntington’s disease Society of America.

Woody’s musical legacy includes hundreds of songs, ballads and improvised works, covering topics from political, to children, to traditional songs. He wrote 3 novels, many plays, hundreds of letters and news articles, and created many artworks, which are preserved in the Woody Guthrie’s Archives in New York.

His novels:

  • Bound for Glory (1943)

  • Seeds of Man (published 1976)

  • House of Earth, 1947 (published 2013)

Selected published discography:

  • Dust Bowl Ballads (1940)

  • Hard Travelin (1964)

  • Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie (1972)

  • Colombia River Collection (1987)

  • Library of Congress Recordings (1988)

  • Folkways: The original Vision, Woody and Leadbelly (1988)

  • Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs (1989)

  • Struggle (1990)

  • Cowboy Songs on Folkways (1991)

  • Nursery Days (1992)

  • Long Ways to Travel: The Unreleased Folkway Masters 1944-1949 (1994)

  • Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti (1996)

  • Almanac Singers (1996)

  • This Land is Your Land, The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1 (1997)

  • Buffalo Skinners, The Asch Recordings, Vol. 4 (1999)

  • The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 (2007)

  • Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection (2012)

Back to top