Woody Guthrie – The Father of Modern Folk Music

Woody Guthrie was an ingenious artist whose talent covered genres, time periods and regions. His songs often depict maintainers with all their hopes, fears and daily tasks as subjects for discussion.

By the 1940s he had established himself within New York City’s folk music community alongside Pete Seeger and Almanac Singers. Unfortunately his health declined due to Huntington’s Disease and he passed away in 1967.

Social Commentary

Folk music dates back centuries when communities relied on oral traditions to pass down history and cultural knowledge through song. Over time, folk evolved into an adaptable genre rooted in tradition yet responsive to ever-evolving societies; today artists such as Woody Guthrie use folk as an expression tool of social change by using song as an outlet for social commentary.

Guthrie was an enthusiastic supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, cultivating a style which blended traditional country music with topical songs in support of President FDR and New Deal programs. His music also capitalized on the documentary impulse of photographers such as Dorthea Lange while showing solidarity with downtrodden American workers whom he championed through song.

Guthrie wrote and sang thousands of songs over his long career, many of which still exist today. These songs addressed topics ranging from Depression-era unemployment and modernization effects, war, as well as specific political figures or communities (such as Jewish people in his song “I’ll Never Forget Jerusalem.)

As the Civil Rights movement gained steam during the 1960s, folk music emerged as one of its primary vehicles for communicating its message to new generations of Americans seeking equal opportunity and justice. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” helped fuel that effort while inspiring future generations through songs such as these anthems of protest against war or environmental degradation. Furthermore, environmental political efforts stoked interest in folk music as did antiwar protests which popularized this genre further.

Folk revival took place during the 1950s and 60s, when artists responded to changing world conditions by adopting new instruments, techniques, and recording technology. Notable artists included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez who added contemporary issues into their repertoires to add social commentary in folk music’s long tradition.

Woody Guthrie had an enormous effect on popular culture. His raw performing style and poetic lyrics had an immense effect, particularly his iconic “This Land Is Your Land,” which is still frequently played at public gatherings and school assemblies today. Its stirring sentiments coupled with Guthrie’s folk tradition roots set the standard that subsequent songwriters could follow when adding political or poetic themes into their songs.

Social Causes

Folk music often serves to address social causes while providing people a way of connecting to the history, traditions, and customs of their country. One renowned folk singer who used his songs to highlight working class Americans during the Great Depression was Woody Guthrie; many famous musicians such as Bob Dylan have cited him as a source of influence in modern protest songwriting.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. At 14 years old he left school and began working odd jobs to support his family; hitching rides across country for work opportunities while writing many songs about them as he went along.

In 1937, Guthrie travelled to California and began performing radio broadcasts. Soon, he earned enough money for himself and his family’s support before moving on to New York where he joined Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers; under their tutelage Guthrie became one of their premier performers and gained national acclaim for his works.

Over the course of his 40s and 50s career, Guthrie produced numerous songs, garnering him widespread popularity with young people while becoming known for his political activism. Today his songs form an integral part of American folk tradition and have been covered by many musicians such as Bob Dylan.

Guthrie had a profound effect on other musicians such as Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, whom he considered his close friend. Yet despite this success, he struggled with alcoholism and mental illness until his death from Huntington’s disease in 1967.

Guthrie has long been revered as one of the most influential singer-songwriters in American history, his life and work having inspired an entire generation of musicians and activists dedicated to social change. His songs have also been performed to commemorate those who have lost their homes due to natural disasters or remember those who have perished as a result of them.

Woody Guthrie famously wrote songs about these challenges that have since become part of American folk music tradition. During the Great Depression, many people left their homes and traveled to cities in search of employment, leading to homelessness among many families. Woody wrote numerous songs to address them which became part of America’s folk music legacy.

Personal Life

Woody Guthrie was an intricate character – his music often reflecting that. As someone without formal education who spent much of his life traveling from bar patron to bar patron singing and playing guitar for entertainment purposes he absorbed traditional folk ballads while writing new ones about working class life. Tragedy came early and often; from his sister’s accidental death to fire that destroyed their family home to his mother being institutionalized due to Huntington’s disease; these experiences gave Woody an bleak perspective of American society which informed his themes and lyrics within his songs.

As a youth in Pampa, Texas, he busked on the streets for money to purchase food and instruments from vendors. In addition, he read extensively in public libraries as well as taking advantage of free art classes offered at city hall; all while honing his artistic abilities while nurturing a social conscience that would later define his work.

After serving his country during World War II, Guthrie turned back to performing for farmer and worker groups, including those forced west by the Dust Bowl years. Guthrie connected with this audience and helped express their concerns through music; his repertoire includes over one thousand songs like “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” and “Union Maid,” both inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

He recorded several songs for Moses Asch at Folkways Records, now part of the Smithsonian Institution. These recordings have become timeless classics such as “This Land Is Your Land.”

Guthrie became active with the Almanac Singers while living in New York City, along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell. The Almanac Singers performed on radio programs and charity events while raising awareness to issues faced by working people. Guthrie himself battled fascism and racism by writing his autobiography entitled Bound for Glory that was published in 1943; during that year his first wife died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Lorina; additionally Arlo and Joady were born.


Guthrie was an influential singer-guitarist-writer known as the Father of Modern American Folk Music. He created songs about hardships of the Great Depression and migrants’ and workers’ hardships in America’s rural areas; these pieces have been recorded by numerous performers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among many others. He often holds his place among American music halls as an authority figure.

Guthrie began his adulthood by hitchhiking and train hopping across America, picking up work as he went. Along the way he met former farmers, factory workers looking for employment, migrant families seeking new opportunities as well as former and current farmhands looking for opportunities. Guthrie captured their stories, detailing their hardships while recording them into songs to tell their tale.

At 18 years old, Guthrie moved from Okemah, Oklahoma to Pampa, Texas where he learned guitar. While in Pampa he would spend his spare time strumming at bars and dance halls to earn coins by singing. Guthrie soon discovered his voice as well as writing lyrics that captured everyday Americans struggling through economic instability caused by the Great Depression.

After years of wandering, Guthrie finally settled down in Pampa and married and had three children before the Dust Bowl hit his region. But during its onset he abandoned his family and traveled west in search of work; there he played hillbilly music at Los Angeles radio stations while meeting writers such as John Steinbeck and Will Geer; additionally he wrote columns for People’s World newspaper between May 1939 and January 1940.

Guthrie first fell ill with Huntington’s Chorea in 1947 and ultimately succumbed in 1967, yet continued his music activities such as touring and recording with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott who considered Guthrie “the father of modern country and western music”.

Guthrie’s political activism gave rise to an entire generation of folk musicians who followed in his footsteps. If you see someone playing solo guitar and harmonica with no accompaniment other than their voice singing the tunes from Guthrie’s songs, that person could well be channeling Woody himself!