Woody Guthrie Biography

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, 14 July 1912, Okemah, Oklahoma, USA, d. 3 October 1967, New York City, New York, USA. A major figure of America’s folk heritage, Guthrie was raised in a musical environment and achieved proficiency on harmonica as a child. Though his family was relatively prosperous during his early years (his father Charley was a land speculator), by the age of 16 they had fallen on hard times and Woody had begun his itinerant lifestyle, performing in a Texas-based magic show where he learned to play guitar. In 1935, Guthrie moved to California where he became a regular attraction on Los Angeles’ KFVD radio station. Having befriended singer Cisco Houston and actor Will Geer, Guthrie established his left wing-orientated credentials with joint appearances at union meetings and migrant labour camps. Already a prolific songwriter, his reactions to the poverty he witnessed inspired several of his finest compositions, notably ‘Pastures Of Plenty’, ‘Dust Bowl Refugees’, ‘Vigilante Man’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land’, regarded by many as America’s ‘alternative’ national anthem. Guthrie was also an enthusiastic proponent of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, as demonstrated by ‘Grand Coolee Dam’ and ‘Roll On Columbia’, while his children’s songs, including ‘Car Car’, were both simple and charming.

At the end of the 30s Guthrie travelled to New York where he undertook a series of recordings for the folk song archive at the Library Of Congress. The 12 discs he completed were later released commercially by Elektra Records. Guthrie continued to traverse the country and in 1940 met Pete Seeger at a folk-song rally in California. Together they formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hayes and Millard Lampell, which in turn inspired the Almanac House, a co-operative apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village which became the focus of the east coast folk movement. In 1942, Guthrie joined the short-lived Headline Singers with Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, before beginning his autobiography, Bound For Glory, which was published the following year. He and Houston then enlisted in the merchant marines, where they remained until the end of World War II, after which Guthrie began a series of exemplary recordings for the newly founded Folkways Records label. The artist eventually completed over 200 masters which provided the fledgling company with a secure foundation. Further sessions were undertaken for other outlets, while Guthrie retained his commitment to the union movement through columns for the Daily Worker and People’s World.

Guthrie’s prolific output - he conscientiously composed every day - continued unabated until the end of the 40s when he succumbed to Huntington’s Chorea, a hereditary, degenerative disease of the nerves. He was hospitalized in 1952, and was gradually immobilized by this wasting illness until he could barely talk or recognize friends and visitors. By the time of his death on 3 October 1967, Woody Guthrie was enshrined in America’s folklore, not just because of his own achievements, but through his considerable influence on a new generation of artists. Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn and Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie were among his most obvious disciples, but the great number of performers, including Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens and Country Joe McDonald, gathered at two subsequent tribute concerts, confirmed their debt to this pivotal figure. Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded two excellent albums of his unreleased and unfinished songs in the late 90s.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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