Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

Guthrie with guitar labeled
"This machine kills fascists" (1943)
Background information
Birth name Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Born (1912-07-14)July 14, 1912
Okemah, Oklahoma, U.S.
Died October 3, 1967(1967-10-03) (aged 55)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter
Years active 1930–1956
Associated acts Almanac Singers
Notable instruments

Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (/ˈɡʌθri/; July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967) was an American singer-songwriter and musician whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional, and children's songs, along with ballads and improvised works. He frequently performed with the slogan This machine kills fascists displayed on his guitar. His best-known song is "This Land Is Your Land". Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress.[1] Songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Hunter, Harry Chapin, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Andy Irvine, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia, Jay Farrar, Bob Weir, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers, Sammy Walker and Tom Paxton have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.

Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when he traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Troubadour".[2] Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States Communist groups, though he was seemingly not a member of any.[3]

Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie died from complications of Huntington's disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.


Early life: 1912–30

A white map of Oklahoma with a red dot in the center
Okemah in Oklahoma
A simple house
Woody Guthrie's Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, childhood home as it appeared in 1979

Guthrie was born in Okemah, a small town in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, the son of Nora Belle (née Sherman) and Charles Edward Guthrie.[4] His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate soon to be elected President of the United States.

Charles Guthrie was an industrious businessman, owning at one time up to 30 plots of land in Okfuskee County. He was actively involved in Oklahoma politics and was a conservative Democratic candidate for office in the county. When Charles was making stump speeches, he would often be accompanied by his son.[5] Charles Guthrie was involved in the 1911 lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson. Woody Guthrie wrote three songs about the event and said that his father, Charles, was later a member of the revived Ku Klux Klan.[6]

Guthrie's early family life was affected by several fires, including one that caused the loss of his family's home in Okemah. His sister Clara later died in a coal-oil (used for heating) fire when Guthrie was seven, and Guthrie's father was severely burned in a subsequent coal-oil fire.[7]

Guthrie's mother, Nora, was afflicted with Huntington's disease,[8] although the family did not know this at the time. It leads to dementia as well as muscular degeneration.[9] She was eventually committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, where she died in 1930 from Huntington's disease. Judging from the circumstances of her father's death by drowning, researchers suspect that George Sherman suffered from the same hereditary disease.[10]

When Nora Guthrie was institutionalized, Woody Guthrie was 14. His father Charley was living and working in Pampa, Texas, to repay his debts from unsuccessful real estate deals. Woody and his siblings were on their own in Oklahoma; they relied on their eldest brother Roy for support. The 14-year-old Woody Guthrie worked odd jobs around Okemah, begging meals and sometimes sleeping at the homes of family friends. According to one story, Guthrie befriended an African-American blues harmonica player named "George", whom he would watch play at the man's shoe shine booth. Before long, Guthrie bought his own harmonica and began playing along with him. In another interview 14 years later, Guthrie claimed he learned how to play harmonica from a boyhood friend, John Woods, and that his earlier story about the shoe-shining player was false.[11]

He seemed to have a natural affinity for music and easily learned to "play by ear". He began to use his musical skills around town, playing a song for a sandwich or coins.[12] Guthrie easily learned old ballads and traditional English & Scots songs from the parents of friends. Although he did not excel as a student (he dropped out of high school in his fourth year and did not graduate), his teachers described him as bright. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics. Friends recall his reading constantly.[13]

In 1929, Guthrie's father sent for his son to come to Texas,[14] but little changed for the aspiring musician. Guthrie, then 18, was reluctant to attend high school classes in Pampa and spent much time learning songs by busking on the streets and reading in the library at Pampa's city hall. He was growing as a musician, gaining practice by regularly playing at dances with his father's half-brother Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle player. At the library, he wrote a manuscript summarizing everything he had read on the basics of psychology. A librarian in Pampa shelved this manuscript under Guthrie's name, but it was later lost in a library reorganization.[13]

1930s: Traveling

At age 19, Guthrie met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children,[15] Gwendolyn, Sue, and Bill.[16] With the advent of the Dust Bowl era, Guthrie left Texas, leaving Mary behind, and joined the thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for work. Many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by these working class people.

"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."

Written by Guthrie in the late 1930s on a songbook distributed to listeners of his L.A. radio show "Woody and Lefty Lou" who wanted the words to his recordings.[17]


During the late part of that decade, he achieved fame with radio partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman as a broadcast performer of commercial "hillbilly" music and traditional folk music.[18] Guthrie was making enough money to send for his family, who were still living in Texas. While appearing on the commercial radio station KFVD, owned by a populist-minded New Deal Democrat, Frank W. Burke, Guthrie began to write and perform some of the protest songs that would eventually appear on Dust Bowl Ballads.

It was at KFVD that Guthrie met newscaster Ed Robbin. Robbin was impressed with a song Guthrie wrote about political activist Thomas Mooney, believed by many to be wrongly convicted in a case that was a cause célèbre of the time.[19] Robbin, who became Guthrie's political mentor, introduced Guthrie to socialists and Communists in Southern California, including Will Geer (who, in turn, introduced Guthrie to John Steinbeck).[20] Robbin remained Guthrie's lifelong friend, and helped Guthrie book benefit performances in the Communist circles in Southern California. Notwithstanding Guthrie's later claim that "the best thing that I did in 1936 was to sign up with the Communist Party,"[21] he was never a member of the Party. He was noted as a fellow traveler—an outsider who agreed with the platform of the party while not subject to party discipline.[22] Guthrie asked to write a column for the Communist newspaper, People's World. The column, titled "Woody Sez", appeared a total of 174 times from May 1939 to January 1940. "Woody Sez" was not explicitly political, but was about current events as observed by Guthrie. He wrote the columns in an exaggerated hillbilly dialect and usually included a small comic;[23] they were published as a collection after Guthrie's death.[3] Steve Earle said of Guthrie, "I don't think of Woody Guthrie as a political writer. He was a writer who lived in very political times."[24]

With the outbreak of World War II and the nonaggression pact the Soviet Union had signed with Germany in 1939, the owners of KFVD radio did not want its staff "spinning apologia" for the Soviet Union. Both Robbin and Guthrie left the station.[25] Without the daily radio show, his prospects for employment diminished, and Guthrie and his family returned to Pampa, Texas. Although Mary Guthrie was happy to return to Texas, the wanderlusting Guthrie soon after accepted Will Geer's invitation to New York City and headed east.

1940s: Building a Legacy

New York City

Arriving in New York, Guthrie, known as "the Oklahoma cowboy", was embraced by its leftist folk music community. For a time, he slept on a couch in Will Geer's apartment. Guthrie made his first recordings—several hours of conversation and songs recorded by the folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress—as well as an album, Dust Bowl Ballads, for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey.[26]

"This Land is Your Land"
Sample of Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land is Your Land"

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Guthrie was tired of the radio overplaying Irving Berlin's "God Bless America". He thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent.[27] Partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for "God Bless America", he wrote his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land", in February 1940; it was subtitled: "God Blessed America for Me". The melody is adapted from an old gospel song, "Oh My Loving Brother". This was best known as "When The World's On Fire", sung by the country group The Carter Family. Guthrie signed the manuscript with the comment, "All you can write is what you see, Woody G., N.Y., N.Y., N.Y."[28] He protested against class inequality in the fourth and sixth verses:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing". [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

These verses were often omitted in subsequent recordings, sometimes by Guthrie. Although the song was written in 1940, it was four years before he recorded it for Moses Asch in April 1944.[29] Sheet music was produced and given to schools by Howie Richmond sometime later.[30]

In March 1940 Guthrie was invited to play at a benefit hosted by The John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers, to raise money for migrant workers. There he met the folksinger Pete Seeger, and the two men became good friends.[31] Later, Seeger accompanied Guthrie back to Texas to meet other members of the Guthrie family. He recalled an awkward conversation with Mary Guthrie's mother, in which she asked for Seeger's help to persuade Guthrie to treat her daughter better.[32]

From April 1940 Guthrie and Seeger lived together in the Greenwich Village loft of sculptor Harold Ambellan and his fiancee. Guthrie had some success in New York at this time as a guest on CBS's radio program Back Where I Come From and used his influence to get a spot on the show for his friend Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. Ledbetter's Tenth Street apartment was a gathering spot for the leftwing musician circle in New York at the time, and Guthrie and Ledbetter were good friends, as they had busked together at bars in Harlem.[33]

In November 1941 Seeger introduced Guthrie to his friend the poet Charles Olson, then a junior editor at the fledgling magazine Common Ground. The meeting led to Guthrie writing the article "Ear Players" in the Spring 1942 issue of the magazine. The article marked Guthrie's debut as a published writer in the mainstream media.[34]

In September 1940 Guthrie was invited by the Model Tobacco Company to host their radio program Pipe Smoking Time. Guthrie was paid $180 a week, an impressive salary in 1940.[35] He was finally making enough money to send regular payments back to Mary. He also brought her and the children to New York, where the family lived briefly in an apartment on Central Park West. The reunion represented Woody's desire to be a better father and husband. He said, "I have to set [sic] real hard to think of being a dad."[35] Guthrie quit after the seventh broadcast, claiming he had begun to feel the show was too restrictive when he was told what to sing.[36] Disgruntled with New York, Guthrie packed up Mary and his children in a new car and headed west to California.[37]

Pacific Northwest

A black-and-white image of a river
Video: Guthrie wrote songs for The Columbia about the Columbia River in 1941 but the film wasn't released until 1949. Playing time 21:10.

In May 1941 after a brief stay in Los Angeles, Guthrie moved the family north to Oregon on the promise of a job. Gunther von Fritsch was directing a documentary about the Bonneville Power Administration's construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, and needed a narrator. Alan Lomax had recommended Guthrie to narrate the film and sing songs onscreen. The original project was expected to take 12 months, but as filmmakers became worried about casting such a political figure, they minimized Guthrie's role. The Department of the Interior hired him for one month to write songs about the Columbia River and the construction of the federal dams for the documentary's soundtrack. Guthrie toured the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest. Guthrie said he "couldn't believe it, it's a paradise",[38] which appeared to inspire him creatively. In one month Guthrie wrote 26 songs, including three of his most famous: "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On", "Pastures of Plenty", and "Grand Coulee Dam".[39] The surviving songs were released as Columbia River Songs. The film "Columbia" was not completed until 1949 (see below). At the conclusion of the month in Oregon and Washington, Guthrie wanted to return to New York. Tired of the continual uprooting, Mary Guthrie told him to go without her and the children.[40] Although Guthrie would see Mary again, once on a tour through Los Angeles with the Almanac Singers, it was essentially the end of their marriage. Divorce was difficult, since Mary was a member of the Catholic Church, but she reluctantly agreed in December 1943.[41]

Woody Guthrie, 1943

Almanac Singers

Main article: Almanac Singers

Following the conclusion of his work in the Northwest, Guthrie corresponded with Pete Seeger about Seeger's newly formed folk-protest group, the Almanac Singers. Guthrie returned to New York with plans to tour the country as a member of the group.[42] The singers originally worked out of a loft in New York City hosting regular concerts called "hootenannies", a word Pete and Woody had picked up in their cross-country travels. The singers eventually outgrew the space and moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village.

Initially Guthrie helped write and sing what the Almanac Singers termed "peace" songs; while the Nazi-Soviet Pact was in effect, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Communist line was that World War II was a capitalist fraud. After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the group wrote anti-fascist songs. The members of the Almanac Singers and residents of the Almanac House were a loosely defined group of musicians, though the "core" members included Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays. In keeping with common socialist ideals, meals, chores and rent at the Almanac House were shared. The Sunday hootenannies were good opportunities to collect donation money for rent. Songs written in the Almanac House had shared songwriting credits among all the members, although in the case of "Union Maid", members would later state that Guthrie wrote the song, ensuring that his children would receive residuals.[43]

In the Almanac House, Guthrie added authenticity to their work, since he was a "real" working-class Oklahoman. "There was the heart of America personified in Woody ... And for a New York Left that was primarily Jewish, first or second generation American, and was desperately trying to get Americanized, I think a figure like Woody was of great, great importance", a friend of the group, Irwin Silber, would say.[44] Woody routinely emphasized his working-class image, rejected songs he felt were not in the country blues vein he was familiar with, and rarely contributed to household chores. House member Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, another Okie, would later recall that Woody "loved people to think of him as a real working class person and not an intellectual".[45] Guthrie contributed songwriting and authenticity in much the same capacity for Pete Seeger's post-Almanac Singers project People's Songs, a newsletter and booking organization for labor singers, founded in 1945.[46]

Bound for Glory

Guthrie was a prolific writer, penning thousands of pages of unpublished poems and prose, many written while living in New York City. After a recording session with Alan Lomax, Lomax suggested Guthrie write an autobiography. Lomax thought Guthrie's descriptions of growing up were some of the best accounts he had read of American childhood.[47] During this time Guthrie met Marjorie Mazia, a dancer in New York who would become his second wife. Mazia was an instructor at the prestigious Martha Graham Dance School, where she was assisting Sophie Maslow with her piece Folksay. Based on the folklore and poetry collected by Carl Sandburg, Folksay included the adaptation of some of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads for the dance.[48] Guthrie continued to write songs and began work on his autobiography. The end product, Bound for Glory, was completed with the patient editing assistance of Mazia and was first published by E.P. Dutton in 1943.[49] It is vividly told in the artist's down-home dialect, with the flair and imagery of a true storyteller. Library Journal complained about the "too careful reproduction of illiterate speech."[50] But Clifton Fadiman, reviewing the book in the New York Times, paid the author a fine tribute: "Someday people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession, like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world."[50] A film adaptation of Bound for Glory was released in 1976.[51]

The Asch recordings

In 1944 Guthrie met Moses "Moe" Asch of Folkways Records, for whom he first recorded "This Land Is Your Land". Over the next few years, he recorded "Worried Man Blues", along with hundreds of other songs. These recordings would later be released by Folkways and Stinson Records, which had joint distribution rights.[52] The Folkways recordings are available (through the Smithsonian Institution online shop); the most complete series of these sessions, culled from dates with Asch, is titled The Asch Recordings.

World War II years

Guthrie believed performing his anti-fascist songs and poems at home was the best use of his talents; Guthrie lobbied the United States Army to accept him as a USO performer instead of conscripting him as a soldier in the draft. When Guthrie's attempts failed, his friends Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi pressured Guthrie to join the U.S. Merchant Marine.[53] Guthrie followed their advice and went to sea in June 1943 making voyages in convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic aboard the merchant ships SS William B. Travis, SS William Floyd, and SS Sea Porpoise. He served as a mess man and dishwasher and frequently sang for the crew and troops to buoy their spirits on transatlantic voyages. His first ship, William B. Travis, hit a mine in the Mediterranean Sea, killing one person aboard, but made it to Bizerte, Tunisia under her own power.[54] His last ship, Sea Porpoise, took troops from the United States for the D-Day invasion. Guthrie was aboard when the ship was torpedoed off Utah Beach by the German submarine U-390 on July 5, 1944, injuring 12 of the crew. Guthrie was unhurt and the ship stayed afloat to be repaired at Newcastle upon Tyne in England[55] before returning to the United States in July 1944.[56] He was an active supporter of the National Maritime Union, the main union for wartime American sailors. Guthrie wrote songs about his experience in the Merchant Marine but was never satisfied with the results. Longhi later wrote about these experiences in his book Woody, Cisco and Me.[57] The book offers a rare first-hand account of Guthrie during his Merchant Marine service. In 1945, Guthrie's association with Communism made him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army.[58]

While he was on furlough from the Army, Guthrie and Marjorie were married.[59] After his discharge, they moved into a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island and over time had four children: daughters Cathy and Nora; and sons Arlo and Joady. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at the age of four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression.[60] Arlo followed in his father's footsteps as a singer-songwriter. During this period, Guthrie wrote and recorded Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, a collection of children's music, which includes the song "Goodnight Little Arlo (Goodnight Little Darlin')", written when Arlo was about nine years old.

A 1948 crash of a plane carrying 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California, in deportation back to Mexico inspired Woody to write "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)".[61]

In 1949, Guthrie's music was featured in the film Columbia River;[62] Guthrie had been commissioned in 1941 to provide songs for the project, but it had been postponed by World War II.[63]

Mermaid Avenue

This page from a collection of Guthrie's sheet music published in 1946 includes his Mermaid Avenue address and one of his anti-fascist slogans

The years living on Mermaid Avenue were among Guthrie's most productive as a writer. His extensive writings from this time were archived and maintained by Marjorie and later his estate, mostly handled by his daughter Nora. Several of the manuscripts contain scribblings by a young Arlo and the other Guthrie offspring.[64]

During this time Ramblin' Jack Elliott studied extensively under Guthrie, visiting his home and observing how he wrote and performed. Elliott, like Bob Dylan later, idolized Guthrie and was inspired by his idiomatic performance style and repertoire. Because of Guthrie's Huntington's disease, Dylan and Guthrie's son Arlo later claimed they learned much of Guthrie's performance style from Elliott. When asked about Arlo's claim, Elliott said, "I was flattered. Dylan learned from me the same way I learned from Woody. Woody didn't teach me. He just said, If you want to learn something, just steal it—that's the way I learned from Lead Belly."[65]

1950s and 1960s

Deteriorating health

By the late 1940s, Guthrie's health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), but in 1952, it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington's disease,[8] a genetic disorder inherited from his mother. Believing him to be a danger to their children, Marjorie suggested he return to California without her; they eventually divorced.[66]

Upon his return to California, Guthrie lived at the Theatricum Botanicum, a summer-stock type theatre founded and owned by Will Geer; with blacklisted singers and actors, he waited out the anti-communist political climate. As his health worsened, he met and married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk. They had a child, Lorinna Lynn. The couple moved to Fruit Cove, Florida, briefly. They lived in a bus on land called Beluthahatchee, owned by his friend Stetson Kennedy. Guthrie's arm was hurt in a campfire accident when gasoline used to start the campfire exploded. Although he regained movement in the arm, he was never able to play the guitar again. In 1954, the couple returned to New York.[67] Shortly after, Anneke filed for divorce, a result of the strain of caring for Guthrie. Anneke left New York and allowed friends to adopt Lorinna Lynn. Lorinna had no further contact with her birth parents and died in a car accident in California in 1973 at the age of 19. After the divorce, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie, re-entered his life and cared for him until his death.

Increasingly unable to control his muscles, Guthrie was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, New Jersey, from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital (now Kingsboro Psychiatric Center) in East Flatbush until 1966,[68] and finally at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, New York, until his death in 1967.[69] Marjorie and the children visited Guthrie at Greystone every Sunday. They answered fan mail and played on the hospital grounds. Eventually a longtime fan of Guthrie invited the family to his nearby home for the Sunday visits. This lasted until Guthrie was moved to the Brooklyn State Hospital, which was closer to Howard Beach, NY, where Marjorie and the children then lived.

During the final few years of his life, Guthrie was largely alone except for family: because of the progression of Huntington's, he was difficult to be around – common symptoms of HD include uncharacteristic aggression, emotional volatility, and social disinhibition.[70] Guthrie's illness was essentially untreated, because of a lack of information about the disease. His death helped raise 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.[71] None of Guthrie's three remaining children with Marjorie have developed symptoms of Huntington's. Mary Guthrie's son Bill died in an auto-train accident in Pomona, California, at the age of 23.[72] Mary's other children, Gwendolyn and Sue, suffered from the disease and both died at 41 years of age.[73]

Folk revival and Guthrie's death

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people was inspired by folk singers such as Guthrie. These "folk revivalists" became more politically aware in their music than those of the previous generation. The American Folk Revival was beginning to take place, focused on the issues of the day, such as the Civil Rights Movement and Free Speech Movement. Pockets of folk singers were forming around the country in places such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. One of Guthrie's visitors at Greystone Park was the 19-year-old Bob Dylan,[74] who idolized Guthrie. Dylan wrote of Guthrie's repertoire: "The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them."[75] After learning of Guthrie's whereabouts, Dylan regularly visited him.[76]

Guthrie died of complications of Huntington's disease on October 3, 1967. By the time of his death, his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to them through Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, his ex-wife Marjorie and other new members of the folk revival, and his son Arlo. A demonstration copy of Arlo's magnum opus "Alice's Restaurant" was, according to a Guthrie "family joke," the last thing Woody heard before he died.[77]


Musical legacy

Foundation, Center and Archives

The Woody Guthrie Foundation is a non-profit organization that serves as administrator and caretaker of the Woody Guthrie Archives. The archives house the largest collection of Guthrie material in the world.[78] In 2013, the archives were relocated from New York City to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after being purchased by the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Foundation.[79] The Center officially opened on April 27, 2013.[80] The Woody Guthrie Center features, in addition to the archives, a museum focused on the life and the influence of Guthrie through his music, writings, art, and political activities. The museum is open to the public; the archives are open only to researchers by appointment. The archives contains thousands of items related to Guthrie, including original artwork, books, correspondence, lyrics, manuscripts, media, notebooks, periodicals, personal papers, photographs, scrapbooks, and other special collections.[81]

"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.

I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.

I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."[82]

Guthrie on songwriting

Guthrie's unrecorded written lyrics housed at the archives have been the starting point of several albums including the Wilco and Billy Bragg albums Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, created in 1998 sessions at the invitation of Guthrie's daughter Nora.[83] The Native American (Diné) trio Blackfire also interpreted previously unreleased Guthrie lyrics at Nora's invitation.[84] Jonatha Brooke's 2008 album, The Works, includes lyrics from the Woody Guthrie Archives set to music by Jonatha Brooke.[85] The various artists compilation Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie was released in 2011. Nora selected Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames to record her father's lyrics for New Multitudes to honor the 100th anniversary of his birth and a box set of the Mermaid Avenue sessions was also released.

Folk Festival

The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is held annually in mid-July to commemorate Guthrie's life and music. The festival is held on the weekend closest to Guthrie's birth date (July 14) in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. Planned and implemented annually by the Woody Guthrie Coalition, a non-profit corporation, the goal is simply to ensure Guthrie's musical legacy.[86][87] The Woody Guthrie Coalition commissioned a local Creek Indian sculptor to cast a full-body bronze statue of Guthrie and his guitar, complete with the guitar's well-known inscription: "This machine kills fascists".[88] The statue, sculpted by artist Dan Brook, stands along Okemah's main street in the heart of downtown and was unveiled in 1998, the inaugural year of the festival.[89]

Jewish songs

Marjorie Mazia was born Marjorie Greenblatt and her mother, Aliza Greenblatt, was a well-known Yiddish poet. With her, Guthrie wrote numerous Jewish lyrics. Guthrie's Jewish lyrics can be traced to the unusual collaborative relationship he had with his mother-in-law, who lived across from Guthrie and his family in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Guthrie (the Oklahoma troubadour) and Greenblatt (the Jewish wordsmith) often discussed their artistic projects and critiqued each other's works, finding common ground in their shared love of culture and social justice, despite very different backgrounds. Their collaboration flourished in 1940s Brooklyn, where Jewish culture was interwoven with music, modern dance, poetry and anti-fascist, pro-labor, classic socialist activism. Guthrie was inspired to write songs that came directly out of this unlikely relationship, both personal and political; he identified the problems of Jews with those of his fellow Okies and other oppressed peoples.

These lyrics were rediscovered by Nora Guthrie and were set to music by the Jewish Klezmer group The Klezmatics with the release of Happy Joyous Hanukkah on JMG Records in 2007. The Klezmatics also released Wonder Wheel – Lyrics by Woody Guthrie, an album of spiritual lyrics put to music composed by the band.[90] The album, produced by Danny Blume, was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album.[91]


English anti-folk musician Billy Bragg is one of several artists influenced by Guthrie. He and rock band Wilco recorded three albums' worth of new music containing Guthrie's previously unpublished lyrics.

Since his death, artists have paid tribute to Guthrie by covering his songs or by dedicating songs to him. On January 20, 1968, three months after Guthrie's death, Harold Leventhal produced A Tribute to Woody Guthrie at New York City's Carnegie Hall.[92] Performers included Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan and the Band, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, and others. Leventhal repeated the tribute on September 12, 1970, at the Hollywood Bowl. Recordings of both concerts were eventually released as LPs and later combined into one CD.[93]

The Irish folk singer Christy Moore was also strongly influenced by Woody Guthrie in his seminal 1972 album Prosperous, giving renditions of "The Ludlow Massacre" and Bob Dylan's "Song to Woody". Dylan also penned the poem Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie as a tribute.[94] Andy Irvine–Moore's band mate in Irish folk group Planxty and lifelong admirer of Guthrie–wrote his tribute song "Never Tire of the Road" (released on the album Rain on the Roof), which includes the chorus from a song Guthrie recorded in March 1944: "You Fascists Are Bound to Lose". In 1986, Irvine also recorded both parts of Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad" together as a complete song–under the title of "Tom Joad"–on the first album released by his other band, Patrick Street. Bruce Springsteen also performed a cover of Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" on his live album Live 1975–1985. In the introduction to the song, Springsteen referred to it as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written."[95]

In 1979 Sammy Walker's LP Songs From Woody's Pen was released by Folkways Records. Though the original recordings of these songs date back more than 30 years, Walker sings them in a traditional folk-revivalist manner reminiscent of Guthrie’s social conscience and sense of humor. Speaking of Guthrie, Walker said: "I can’t think of hardly anyone who has had as much influence on my own singing and songwriting as Woody."[96]

In September 1996 Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Case Western Reserve University cohosted Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, a 10-day conference of panel sessions, lectures, and concerts. The conference became the first in what would become the museum's annual American Music Masters Series conference.[97] Highlights included Arlo Guthrie's keynote address, a Saturday night musical jamboree at Cleveland's Odeon Theater, and a Sunday night concert at Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra.[98] Musicians performing over the course of the conference included Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the Indigo Girls, Ellis Paul, Jimmy LaFave, Ani DiFranco, and others.[99] In 1999, Wesleyan University Press published a collection of essays from the conference[100] and DiFranco's record label, Righteous Babe, released a compilation of the Severance Hall concert, 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, in 2000.[101]

From 1999 to 2002 the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service presented the traveling exhibit, This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie. In collaboration with Nora Guthrie, the Smithsonian exhibition draws from rarely seen objects, illustrations, film footage, and recorded performances to reveal a complex man who was at once poet, musician, protester, idealist, itinerant hobo, and folk legend.[102]

In 2003, Jimmy LaFave produced a Woody Guthrie tribute show called Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway. The ensemble show toured around the country and included a rotating cast of singer-songwriters individually performing Guthrie's songs. Interspersed between songs were Guthrie's philosophical writings read by a narrator. In addition to LaFave, members of the rotating cast included Ellis Paul, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Joel Rafael, husband-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's granddaughter) and Johnny Irion, Michael Fracasso, and The Burns Sisters. Oklahoma songwriter Bob Childers, sometimes called "the Dylan of the Dust", served as narrator.[103][104] When word spread about the tour, performers began contacting LaFave, whose only prerequisite was to have an inspirational connection to Guthrie. Each artist chose the Guthrie songs that he or she would perform as part of the tribute. LaFave said, "It works because all the performers are Guthrie enthusiasts in some form".[105] The inaugural performance of the Ribbon of Highway tour took place on February 5, 2003 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The abbreviated show was a featured segment of Nashville Sings Woody, yet another tribute concert to commemorate the music of Woody Guthrie held during the Folk Alliance Conference. The cast of Nashville Sings Woody, a benefit for the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, also included Arlo Guthrie, Marty Stuart, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Janis Ian, and others.[106]

New Multitudes onstage with red lighting
As a part of Guthrie's centennial celebrations, the New Multitudes performers played compositions including his lyrics at Webster Hall in New York City (from left to right: Anders Parker, Will Johnson [drumming], Jay Farrar, and Yim Yames)

Woody and Marjorie Guthrie were honored at a musical celebration featuring Billy Bragg and the band Brad on October 17, 2007 at Webster Hall in New York City. Steve Earle also performed. The event was hosted by actor/activist Tim Robbins to benefit the Huntington's Disease Society of America to commemorate the organization's 40th Anniversary.[107]

In "I'm Not There", a 2007 biographical movie about Bob Dylan, one of the characters introduced in the film as segments of Dylan's life is a young African-American boy who calls himself "Woody Guthrie". The purpose of this particular character was a reference to Dylan's youthful obsession with Guthrie. The fictional Woody also reflects the fictitious autobiographies that Dylan constructed during his early career as he established his own artistic identity. In the film there is even a scene where the fictional Woody visits the real Woody Guthrie as he lies ill and dying in a hospital in New York (a reference to the times when a nineteen-year-old Dylan would regularly visit his idol, after learning of his whereabouts, while he was hospitalized in New York in the 1960s).

This collection of lyrics was published posthumously by the Electronic Frontier Foundation

On the typescript submitted for copyright of "This Land Is Your Land", Guthrie wrote:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”[108] Currently a number of different organizations claim copyright for many of Guthrie's songs.[109]

When JibJab published a parody[110] of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" to comment on the US 2004 Presidential election, Ludlow Music attempted to have this parody taken down, claiming it breached their copyright. JibJab then sued to affirm their parody was Fair Use, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) acting for them. As part of their research on the case they found that the song had actually been first published by Woody Guthrie in 1945, although the copyright was not registered until 1956. This meant that when Ludlow applied to renew the copyright in 1984 they were 11 years too late, and the song had in fact been in the public domain since 1973 (28 years from first publication).[111] Ludlow agreed that JibJab were free to distribute their parody. In an interview on NPR Arlo Guthrie said that he thought the parody was hilarious and he thought Woody would have loved it too.[112] Ludlow still claims copyright for this song, though the basis for this claim is unclear.[113]

The melody came from a tune that A.P. Carter had found and recorded with Sarah and Maybelle Carter prior to 1934 and was not original to Guthrie.[114]

Posthumous recognition and influence

Guthrie has continued to remain popular decades after his death; this mural was painted in his hometown of Okemah in 1994

Pete Seeger had the Sloop Woody Guthrie built for an organization he founded, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.[115] It was launched in 1978. Now operated by the Beacon Sloop Club, it serves to educate people about sailing and the history and environs of the Hudson River.

Although Guthrie's catalog never brought him many awards while he was alive, in 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,[116] and in 2000 he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.[117]

In 1987, "Roll on Columbia" was chosen as the official Washington State Folk Song,[118] and in 2001 Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" was chosen to be the official state folk song of Oklahoma.[17]

On September 26, 1992, The Peace Abbey, a multi-faith retreat center located in Sherborn, Massachusetts, awarded Guthrie its Courage of Conscience Award for his social activism and artistry in song which conveyed the plight of the common person.[119]

Guthrie was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

On June 26, 1998, as part of its Legends of American Music series, the United States Postal Service issued 45 million 32-cent stamps honoring folk musicians Huddie Ledbetter, Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Josh White. The four musicians were represented on sheets of 20 stamps.[120]

In July 2001, CB's Gallery in New York City began hosting an annual Woody Guthrie Birthday Bash concert featuring multiple performers. This event moved to the Bowery Poetry Club in 2007 after CB's Gallery and CBGB, its parent club, closed. The final concert in the series took place on July 14, 2012, Guthrie's 100th birthday.[121]

In 2005, the Boston-based punk band Dropkick Murphys recorded "I'm Shipping Up to Boston". The song's lyrics are from a poem written by Guthrie,[122] and the music was composed by the band. The song was released in 2005 on the album The Warrior's Code and gained fame when it was used as part of the soundtrack for the 2006 movie The Departed.

In 2006, The Klezmatics set Jewish lyrics written by Guthrie to music. The resulting album, Wonder Wheel, won the Grammy award for best contemporary world music album.[91]

Also in 2006, Guthrie was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.[123]

On April 27, 2007, Guthrie was one of four Okemah natives inducted into Okemah's Hall of Fame during the town's Pioneer Day weekend of festivities.[124]

On February 10, 2008, The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949, a rare live recording released in cooperation with the Woody Guthrie Foundation,[125] was the recipient of a Grammy Award in the category Best Historical Album.[126] Less than two years later, Guthrie was again nominated for a Grammy in the same category with the 2009 release of My Dusty Road on Rounder Records.[127]

In the centennial year of Guthrie's birth another album of newly composed songs on his lyrics has been released: New Multitudes. On March 10, 2012, there was a tribute concert at the Brady Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma. John Mellencamp, Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, the Del McCoury Band and the Flaming Lips performed.[128]

The Grammy Museum held a tribute week in April 2012[129] and the Songwriters Hall of Fame a tribute in June. A four-disc box Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions by Billy Bragg and Wilco, with 17 unreleased songs and a documentary, was planned for April release.[128]

On July 10, 2012, Smithsonian Folkways released the Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, a 150-page large-format book with three CDs containing 57 tracks. The set also contains 21 previously unreleased performances and six never before released original songs, including Woody's first known—and recently discovered—recordings from 1937.[130] The box set received two nominations for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, including Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package. It also won an Independent Music Award for Best Compilation Album in 2013.[131]

On April 27, 2013, The Woody Guthrie Center opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma's Brady District.

The feature film Paper Towns, released in July 2015, contains a scene where a poster of Woody Guthrie and his guitar is hung outside on the protagonist’s window.


House of Earth, a long-lost novel written by Guthrie in 1947, was published on February 5, 2013, by Harper under actor Johnny Depp's publishing imprint, Infinitum Nihil. The book is edited by Douglas Brinkley and features an introduction by Depp. Guthrie apparently was unable to have the novel published during his lifetime. House of Earth is about a couple who build a house made of clay and earth to withstand the dust bowl's brutal weather. The book contains explicit sexual material, which may have contributed to his inability to get it published.[132]

Fred Trump

In 2016, a researcher discovered Guthrie's critiques of Fred Trump (father of developer and president-elect Donald Trump), at the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma.

Guthrie chronicled his disgust with Trump as a landlord, penning lyrics which accused him of stirring up racial hate "in the bloodpot of human hearts".[133]

Selected discography

Many Guthrie tracks have been repeatedly repackaged and reordered. Items here are listed in order of the most recent published date, not original recording date.[134]

Year Title Record Label
1940 Dust Bowl Ballads Victor Records
1972 Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie Vanguard
1987 Columbia River Collection Rounder Records
1988 Library of Congress Recordings Rounder Records
1989 Folkways: The Original Vision (Woody and Leadbelly) Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1989 Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1990 Struggle Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1991 Cowboy Songs on Folkways Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1991 Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1992 Nursery Days Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1994 Long Ways to Travel: The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944–1949 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1996 Almanac Singers UNI, MCA
1996 Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1997 This Land Is Your Land, The Asch Recordings, Vol.1 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1997 Muleskinner Blues, The Asch Recordings, Vol.2 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1998 Hard Travelin', The Asch Recordings, Vol.3 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
1999 Buffalo Skinners, The Asch Recordings, Vol.4 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
2005 Folkways: The Original Vision (Woody and LeadBelly) Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
2005 The Very Best of Woody Guthrie Purple Pyramid
2007 The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 Woody Guthrie Publications
2009 My Dusty Road Rounder Records
2012 Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

See also


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Printed sources

Further reading and listening

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