GUTHRIE, WOODROW WILSON (1912–1967).
In a time span of approximately seventeen years, Woodrow "Woody" Guthrie, one of Oklahoma's most creative native sons, wrote two autobiographical novels, numerous essays and articles, more than one thousand songs and poems, and hundreds of letters. He drew more than five hundred illustrations, recorded hundreds of songs, and was a major influence in the urban folk revival, in the folk rock movement, and in social protest song writing. On July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie became the third of five children born to Charley and Nora Guthrie. His father, a Texan who had entered Indian Territory as a cowboy, and his mother, the daughter of a schoolteacher who had come to the territory from Kansas, became a popular couple with the prospect of a successful small business and a good, middle-class family life. As a child Woody Guthrie heard his father sing cowboy songs and his mother play the piano and sing "old" ballads.
When Guthrie was approximately six years old, problems hit the family with destructive force. His older sister died from burns, and his mother exhibited symptoms that most observers believed to be insanity. Later they learned that she carried the genetic condition called Huntington's disease. As her illness intensified, their family life slowly disintegrated, and Guthrie's father lost land holdings, cattle, and other collateral.
A few months before his fifteenth birthday Guthrie had to become self-sufficient, for his father was severely burned, and his mother was committed to the Oklahoma hospital for the insane where she later died. Charley Guthrie was taken to Pampa, Texas, to be cared for by a sister, but Woody remained in Okemah. For the next two years he stayed with different families during the school year and during the summers hitchhiked or hoboed his way to south Texas to stay and work with friends. He made money by picking up junk in back alleys, washing and polishing spittoons to pay rent on a shoeshine stand, selling newspapers, and working at other odd jobs.
In high school he sang in the choir, served as "joke editor" for the school annual, and often entertained fellow students with his harmonica, his wit, and his jig dancing skills. He was a popular student, but in 1929 at the end of his junior year in Okemah High School, Guthrie joined his father in Pampa. The following year the drought and dust storms started and lasted through the entire decade. Even though he later became known as the "Oklahoma Dust Bowl Balladeer," he experienced his Dust Bowl years in Pampa, Texas. Those and subsequent events in Guthrie's life are described in his autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory (1943).
In Pampa Guthrie learned to play the guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, and he worked for a bootlegger and painted signs, but he mostly played dances and entertained. In October 1933 he and Mary Jennings married. In 1935 Guthrie wrote a few poems and parodies of popular songs that still survive as evidence of his early writing interests and skills. However, when he made a little money from singing, he often gave it to someone he thought needed it more than he. His childhood experiences had instilled a compassion for poor and downtrodden people that stayed with him throughout his life. Guthrie's desire to become a country-western entertainer drove him westward to California, a few months before his second daughter was born in July 1937.
In the Los Angeles area Woody and his cousin Jack Guthrie became a popular singing duo and in August 1937 earned a radio show over KFVD in Hollywood. Jack had to leave the show for work that would support his family, so Woody and Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman, a young lady whose family was close to Jack and had taken Woody as a friend, became a musical team. The "Woody and Lefty Lou Show" drew thousands of fan letters over a few months and earned the duo a little money. He also became acquainted with a radical news commentator and attended activist meetings along with movie stars and other lesser-known individuals seeking solutions for Depression-era problems. At that time he wrote numerous songs, including "Oklahoma Hills," and became acquainted with his traveling and recording companion, Cisco Houston.
In 1940 Guthrie, encouraged by actor Will Geer, went to New York. There he met Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, and others who were later influential in the urban folk revival. In March 1940 Guthrie recorded songs for the Library of Congress, and a few weeks later in New York he recorded his "Dust Bowl" songs for RCA Victor. In 1941 he and the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he wrote "twenty-eight songs in twenty-eight days" for the Bonneville Power Authority. In the early 1940s he wrote "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "This Land Is Your Land," and "Bound for Glory," and he divorced Mary and started a second family with Marjorie Mazia.
In New York he appeared on numerous popular radio shows before joining the Merchant Marines with Cisco Houston during World War II. Guthrie was on three torpedoed ships, and the day Germany surrendered, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. In 1944 he started recording for Moses Asch, the founder of Asch Records, which became Folkways Records. During the next six years Guthrie recorded approximately two hundred sides, possibly more—his own songs as well as numerous traditional and country songs, most of which he knew before becoming a participant in the New York folk scene. Guthrie used and/or adapted melodies from his vast storehouse of songs for most of his tunes; he was a poet, not a tunesmith. The master recordings that survive are in the Asch/Folkways collection now owned by the Smithsonian Institution.
By 1950 Guthrie was showing symptoms of Huntington's disease, and his creativity as well as his personal and family life slowly disintegrated. His tendency to hitchhike across the country increased; he and Marjorie divorced. A third marriage also ended in divorce after Guthrie was hospitalized in 1955.
Writing was an obsession with Woody Guthrie, for words rolled on to paper as easily as speech poured from his mouth, almost in a stream-of-consciousness style. He had an excellent sense of humor that he used in his personal appearances as well as in his prose, poems, and song lyrics, and his vivid descriptions left little to the readers' imagination. His inspiration to write might come from a newspaper article, a movie, a conversation, or just observing people.He would sit at the typewriter for hours writing until all thoughts and inspiration were on paper and a body of songs or poems would be completed—songs that documented the Dust Bowl decade and the problems confronted by migrant agriculture workers, children's songs, peace and war songs, cowboy and hobo songs, union and work songs, and love songs.
He was a passionate reader who wrote his interpretations, reactions, and beliefs in the margins of the books he read. From the Okemah Public Library to the New York Public Library, wherever he went, he obtained books to read. He knew the Bible well, along with history, political theories, literature, and oriental religions and philosophy. He had a great command of the English language, but as did his hero Will Rogers, Guthrie often used poor grammar as a role-playing device.
During his approximately thirteen years of hospitalization and following his death on October 3, 1967, numerous tributes increased his fame and recognition. In 1966 the U.S. Department of the Interior named a substation after him in recognition of his "Columbia River" songs. In 1977 he was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame and in 1988 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2000 the Recording Industry Association of America named "This Land Is Your Land" as the third most important song written in the twentieth century, essential for teaching appreciation of music in the lives of Americans. On October 5, 200l, Friends of Libraries in Oklahoma (FOLIO), as a participant in Friends of Libraries USA, and the National Literary Landmark program named Okemah as Oklahoma's first recipient of the Literary Landmark honor, as a tribute to the literary achievements of their favorite native son. His popularity and influence and reputation as possibly Oklahoma's most creative and multitalented product continue into the twenty-first century.
Judith Bell and Nora Guthrie, eds., Woody Guthrie Songs (New York: TRO Ludlow Music, 1999).
Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943).
Woody Guthrie, Seeds of Man: An Experience Lived and Dreamed (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1976).
Woody Guthrie, Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait, ed. David Marsh and Harold Leventhal (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990).
Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980).
Robert Santelli and Emily Davidson, eds., Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Guy Logsdon, “Guthrie, Woodrow Wilson,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=GU006.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.