Woody Guthrie traveled throughout America performing songs for workers and farmers alike. He became well known for reviving classic folk ballads while creating numerous new ones of his own, most famously “This Land Is Your Land,” which eventually became our national anthem.
By the late 1940s, Guthrie began showing symptoms of Huntington’s disease and eventually relocated to California and lived at a farmstead owned by blacklisted performers.
Born in Okemah, Oklahoma
Woody Guthrie was a legendary singer/songwriter renowned for creating songs about an array of topics. His lyrics continue to influence musicians across genres today; from folk icons such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan to alternative rockers Wilco and Klezmer band The Klezmatics – his words remain as relevant now as when he lived.
Woody was inspired by such important historical movements of the twentieth century as The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, World War II and other important historic movements into his lyrics, ballads and prose. His songs of protest expressed his strong socialist convictions while championing downtrodden American workers’ rights.
After leaving Okemah, Woody hitchhiked and rode freight trains westward to California, working at saloons along the way. His experience working among migrant workers informed many of his early compositions; upon reaching California, Woody joined a growing labor movement as well as supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda with gusto.
As a singer/songwriter, Woody developed an impressive following on local radio. Furthermore, he made friends with other influential singer/songwriters like Cisco Houston, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Bess Hawes; their songs became cornerstones of Woody’s legacy.
By the late 1940s, Guthrie had settled into his home on Brooklyn’s Mermaid Avenue and married Martha Graham Company dancer Marjorie Mazia from whom he would bear four children: daughters Cathy and Nora as well as sons Arlo and Joady. Guthrie served in the Merchant Marine during World War II while also becoming increasingly critical of capitalism and fascist political systems; drawing upon this experience for many of his best-known works.
During the Great Depression
Guthrie was an industrious worker both on the land and through his music. Throughout his lifetime, he wrote hundreds of songs, while also producing prolific sketches and paintings that ranged from simple impressionistic works to freer more expressive ones that captured working-class Americans’ spirit and life.
Woody Guthrie was profoundly shaped by the Great Depression both professionally and musically. At that time, many American workers suffered from poverty and unemployment; he developed great empathy for them. Therefore, he wrote hundreds of folk songs that captured everyday struggles of common folk – many became classics!
Guthrie became one of the world’s best-known folk musicians during his long and prolific career, touring widely with his guitar and large repertoire of folk songs, performing regularly at saloons and hobo camps; writing songs to support federal dam building projects like electrification projects (such as “This Land Is Your Land”, Union Maid”, and Roll On Columbia”). His most well-known compositions included “This Land Is Your Land”, Union Maid”, and Roll On Columbia”.
Guthrie was also profoundly impacted by the populist movement which spread through America at this time, which was led by socialists and communists to advocate on behalf of working class Americans. Guthrie integrated the ideas behind this movement into his folk songs as part of this sweeping wave; becoming a regular performer at Communist rallies.
Woody Guthrie joined thousands of Oklahomans and other migrants fleeing from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl during its impactful years to migrate westward, to California for work and gain inspiration for many of his songs. While in California he worked at KFVD radio station as well as meeting writers such as John Steinbeck and Will Geer. Furthermore, from May 1939 until January 1940 he served as regular columnist of Communist newspaper People’s World.
During the Dust Bowl
Woody Guthrie personified American folk music for much of the 20th century. His songs written during the Depression and Dust Bowl addressed working class issues while his use of dry humor, defiance, and rural roots made him an iconic figure for leftists, artists, writers, musicians, as well as younger folk musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
After growing up in Oklahoma, Woody moved to New York City where he quickly found acceptance by leftist groups, artists, and musicians. Soon thereafter he recorded Dust Bowl Ballads for RCA Victor in 1940; its songs chronicled the experiences of Oklahomans displaced to California during an environmental catastrophe and economic turmoil; this album, along with work of other Depression-era folk artists such as John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange photography helped shape FDR’s response through Farm Security Administration relief programs as well as New Deal relief programs.
Through the 1940s, Guthrie performed alongside various folk musicians like Lead Belly, Cisco Houston and Burl Ives. He joined Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers group, singing songs to support various causes like unionism, antifascism and strengthening of Communist Parties.
Guthrie died of Huntington’s disease in 1967, leaving behind an influential legacy of music that continues to resonate today. His stage presence, poetics and mastery of musical performance set a benchmark for folk movements throughout midcentury America that still resonates today.
During World War II
World War II brought on an upsurge in anti-Communist sentiments and progressive-minded Americans like Woody were subject to Red-scare tactics such as blacklisting. Woody and the Weavers were blacklisted for their activist stances regarding issues like unionizing rights, equal rights and free speech; yet Guthrie continued performing for farmer and worker groups with songs like his famous song “This Land Is Your Land,” written in 1944.
Guthrie considered his anti-fascist songs a suitable replacement for “God Bless America”. Guthrie felt performing these anti-fascist songs was best use of his talents; also believed the song reminded the American public about freedom and equality.
Although he had achieved considerable success, he always championed those less fortunate than himself. Touring with hoboes and working in migrant camps gave him a taste for traveling that persisted throughout his music and writing, eventually inspiring his autobiography Bound for Glory.
He met Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. Asch recorded Guthrie for their archives at the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, Guthrie wrote songs to represent the oppressed populations in general as well as Jews specifically, working closely with Aliza Greenblatt a Yiddish poet during this time.
After experiencing brief fame, Guthrie’s career began to decline as his political affiliations became known in the media. Appearing at Communist rallies and writing songs which echo its proletarian views caused future opportunities to slip away. Eventually settling in Coney Island with wife Marjorie and sons Arlo and Joady.
During the Cold War
Woody Guthrie lived through many of the most significant historical movements and events of the 20th Century: from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl through World War II and communism/communist upheaval to unionism/communism upheaval and Cold War social/political upheavals arising from unionism/communism alliances to Cold War divides and social unrest; all while remaining an avid student. As it all unfolded he wrote prolifically while becoming known for songs, ballads and prose that captured everyman’s struggle.
His best-known song, This Land Is Your Land, denounced class inequality. The song also served a dual purpose by criticizing those who let the “system” use their labor force, taxes or lives for warfare – while on the other side celebrating agriculture as an ideal lifestyle choice.
As Guthrie traveled around strumming his guitar and singing for coins, his socialist beliefs began to emerge. He attended Communist rallies, wrote columns for People’s World newspaper and by 1940 had moved to New York City where he began recording folk music for Folkways Records.
In 1942, CBS used his song Round and Round Hitler’s Grave as the theme song for a six-part series on World War II; however, as soon as media reports emerged detailing his proletarian views he received no further performances or offers for future performances.
Woody recorded over three thousand songs throughout his lifetime, covering an array of subjects and influences such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. His unique style is defined by using popular melodies with lyrics that reflect his personal experiences and beliefs – often covering love, poverty, America and workers as key topics of discourse.