WOODY SEZ ~ "Okemah
was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest,
preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun,
club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns." *Excerpt from "Pastures of Plenty" by Woody Guthrie, Edited by Harold Leventhal & Dave Marsh
From left: Woody, Nora, Charley, & George Guthrie at their home in Okemah, Oklahoma, 1924.
Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He
was the second-born son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father – a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician – taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes.
His Kansas-born mother, also musically inclined, had an equally
profound effect on Woody.
Slightly built, with
an extremely full and curly head of hair, Woody was a precocious
and unconventional boy from the start. Always a keen observer of
the world around him, the people, music and landscape he was exposed
to made lasting impressions on him.
During his early years
in Oklahoma, Woody experienced the first of a series of immensely
tragic personal losses. With the accidental death of his older sister
Clara, the family's financial ruin, and the institutionalization
and eventual loss of his mother, Woody's family and home life was
In 1920, oil
was discovered nearby and overnight Okemah was transformed into
an "oil boom" town, bringing thousands of workers, gamblers
and hustlers to the once sleepy farm town. Within a few years, the
oil flow suddenly stopped and Okemah suffered a severe economic
turnaround, leaving the town and its inhabitants "busted, disgusted,
and not to be trusted."
From his experiences
in Okemah, Woody’s uniquely wry outlook on life, as well as
his abiding interest in rambling around the country, was formed.
And so, he took to the open road.
I Hear You Sing Again
GREAT DUST BOWL (1931–1937)
WOODY SEZ ~ “If there was anybody around there that did not play some instrument I did not see them... We played for rodeos, centennials, carnivals, parades, fairs, just bustdown parties, and played several nights and days a week just to hear our own boards rattle and our strings roar around in the wind. It was along in these days I commenced singing, I guess it was singing." *Excerpt from "Bound for Glory" by Woody Guthrie
Woody (far left) with the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band, Pampa, Texas, 1936.
when Okemah's boomtown period went bust, Woody left for Texas.
In the panhandle town of Pampa, he fell in love with Mary Jennings,
the younger sister of a friend and musician named Matt Jennings.
Woody and Mary were married in 1933, and together had three children,
Gwen, Sue and Bill.
It was with Matt Jennings
and Cluster Baker that Woody made his first attempt at a musical
career, forming The Corn Cob Trio and later the Pampa Junior Chamber
of Commerce Band. It was also in Pampa that Woody first discovered
a love and talent for drawing and painting, an interest he would
pursue throughout his life.
If the Great
Depression made it hard for Woody to support his family, the onslaught
of the Great Dust Storm period, which hit the Great Plains in
1935, made it impossible. Drought and dust forced thousands of
desperate farmers and unemployed workers from Oklahoma, Kansas,
Tennessee, and Georgia to head west in search of work. Woody,
like hundreds of “dustbowl refugees,” hit Route 66,
also looking for a way to support his family, who remained back
and hungry, Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked
his way to California, taking whatever small jobs he could. In
exchange for bed and board, Woody painted signs and played guitar
and sang in saloons along the way, developing a love for traveling
the open road—a lifelong habit he would often repeat.
The Great Dust Storm
So Long, It's Been Good To Know Yuh
Talkin’ Dust Bowl
RADIO YEARS (1937–1940)
WOODY SEZ ~ "I hate a song that makes you think that you're 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 either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that....songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood." *Written by Woody Guthrie on December 3rd, 1944 for a WNEW radio show, 1944
announcing Woody Guthrie performance at Towne Forum, Los
Angeles, 1941. Photo by Seema Weatherwax.
the time he arrived in California in 1937, Woody had experienced
intense scorn, hatred, and even physical antagonism from resident
Californians, who opposed the massive migration of the so-called “Okie” outsiders.
In Los Angeles
Woody landed a job on KFVD radio, singing “old-time”
traditional songs as well as some original songs. Together with
his singing partner Maxine Crissman, aka “Lefty Lou,”
Woody began to attract widespread public attention, particularly
from the thousands of relocated Okies gathered in migrant camps.
Living in makeshift cardboard and tin shelters, Woody’s
program provided entertainment and a nostalgic sense of the “home”
life they’d left behind; despite their desperate circumstances,
it was a respite from the harsh realities of migrant life.
radio airwaves also provided Woody a forum from which he developed
his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism.
On topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen
to praising the compassionate and humanist principles of Jesus
Christ, the outlaw hero Pretty Boy Floyd, and the union organizers
that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California’s
agricultural communities, Woody proved himself a hard-hitting
advocate for truth, fairness, and justice.
identified with his audience and adapted to an “outsider”
status, along with them. This role would become an essential element
of his political and social positioning, gradually working its
way into his songwriting; “I Ain't Got No Home”, “Goin'
Down the Road Feelin' Bad”, “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”,
“Tom Joad” and “Hard Travelin'”; all reflect
his desire to give voice to those who had been disenfranchised.
Do Re Mi
Pretty Boy Floyd
Woody's and Lefty Lou’s Theme Song
YORK TOWN (1940-1941)
New York City,
WOODY SEZ ~ "There's several ways of saying what's on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain't any too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even to vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around. One of the mainest ways is by singing. Drop the word 'folk' and just call it real old honest to god American singing. No matter who makes it up, no matter who sings it and who don't, if it talks the lingo of the people, it's a cinch to catch on, and will be sung here and yonder for a long time after you've cashed in your chips. If the fight gets hot, the songs get hotter. If the going gets tough, the songs get tougher." *"Big Guns", Pastures of Plenty", Edited by Harold Leventhal & Dave Marsh
left: Woody, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax, Pete Seeger, Arthur
Stern, and Sis Cunningham. The
Almanac Singers in 1941.
Never comfortable with
success, or being in one place for too long, Woody headed east for
New York City, arriving in 1940. He was quickly embraced for his
Steinbeckian homespun wisdom and musical "authenticity"
by leftist organizations, artists, writers, musicians, and progressive
intellectuals. That same year, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Woody
in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress
in Washington, DC. Woody also recorded “Dust Bowl Ballads” for RCA Victor, his first album of original songs, and throughout
the 1940s he continued to record hundreds of discs for Moses Asch,
founder of Folkways Records. The recordings from this early period
continue to be touchstones for folk music singer-songwriters everywhere.
In New York City, Lead
Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sonny Terry,
Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham,
among others, all became Woody's close friends and musical collaborators.
Forming a loosely knit folk group called The Almanac Singers, they
took up social causes such as union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening
the Communist Party, peace, and generally fighting for the things
they believed in the best way they could: through songs of political
protest and activism. Woody became one of the prominent songwriters
for the Almanac Singers.
The Almanacs helped to
establish folk music as a viable commercial genre within the popular
music industry. A decade later, original members of the Almanacs
would re-form as the Weavers, the most commercially successful and
influential folk music group of the early 1950s. It was through
their tremendous popularity that Woody’s songs would become
known to the larger public.
popularity, prosperity and critical success from public performances,
recordings, and even his own radio show, Woody could afford to bring
his struggling family to New York to enjoy his new found success.
Talkin' Subway Blues
This Land Is Your Land
WOODY SEZ ~ "The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in this world, and I'm one walker that's stood way up and looked way down acrost aplenty of pretty sights in all their veiled and nakedest seasons. The Pacific Northwest has got mineral mountains. It's got chemical deserts. It's got rough run canyons. It's got sawblade snowcaps. It's got ridges of nine kinds of brown, hills out of six colors of green, ridges five shades of shadows, and stickers the eight tones of hell. I pulled my shoes on and walked out of every one of these Pacific Northwest Mountain towns drawing pictures in my mind and listening to poems and songs and words faster to come and dance in my ears than I could ever get them wrote down..." *Writing by Woody Guthrie, appears in "Roll On Columbia" Songbook
Woody in the Pacific Northwest
Despite his success,
Woody became increasingly restless and disillusioned with New
York's radio and entertainment industry. Feeling the heat of censorship
he wrote: "I got disgusted with the whole sissified and nervous
rules of censorship on all my songs and ballads, and drove off
down the road across the southern states again."
York, with his wife and three young children in tow, Woody headed
out to Portland, Oregon where a documentary film project about
the building of the Grand Coulee Dam sought to use his songwriting
talent. The Bonneville Power Administration placed Woody on the Federal
payroll for a month and there he composed the Columbia River Songs,
another remarkable collection of songs that include “Roll
on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and “The
Biggest Thing That Man Has Done.”
When his contract expired, Woody moved his family back to Pampa, Texas.
Hoping to get back to New York City, and on the radio, he hitchhiked his
way across the country. Woody's constant traveling, performing,
and lack of regular work throughout the early 1940s took a hard
toll on his family. Together with his increasing interest and
involvement with progressive “radical” politics helped
bring about the end of his first marriage.
Woody, poet of the rain-starved Dust Bowl, this mighty stream
of cool, clear water, coursing through evergreen forests,
verdant meadows, and high deserts was like a vision of paradise.
He saw the majestic Grand Coulee Dam as the creation of
the common man to harness the river for the common good
– work for the jobless, power to ease household tasks,
power to strengthen Uncle Sam in his fight against world
Grand Coulee Dam
Pastures of Plenty
Roll On Columbia
WORLD WAR II (1942–1945)
New York City,
WOODY SEZ ~ “My big Gibson guitar has got a sign I painted on it, says, "This machine kills fascists" and it means just what it says too.
Woody with his iconic Gibson guitar featuring hand painted sign "This Machine Kills Fascists"
Back in New York, Woody
met and vigorously courted a young dancer with the Martha Graham
Dance Company named Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia. Sharing humanist
ideals and activist politics, Woody and Marjorie were married in
1945 and over the years had four children: Cathy, (who died at age
four in a tragic home fire), Arlo, Joady, and Nora.
provided Woody a level of domestic stability and encouragement which
he had previously not known, enabling him to turn out a staggering
number of original songs, writings, drawings, paintings, poems and
prose pieces. His first novel, Bound for Glory, a semi-autobiographical
account of his Dust Bowl years was published in 1943 to critical
During World War II,
moved by his passion against Fascism, Woody served in both the Merchant
Marine and the Army. Shipping out to sea on several occasions with
his buddies Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi, Woody's tendency to
write songs, tell stories and make drawings continued unabated.
He composed hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war, and historic ballads
to rally the troops, such as “All You Fascists Bound To Lose”,
“Talking Merchant Marine,” and “The Sinking of
the Reuben James.” He began to work on a second novel, Sea
Porpoise, and was enlisted by the army to write songs about the
dangers of venereal diseases, which were published in brochures
distributed to sailors. His capacity for creative self-expression
seemed inexhaustible, whether on land or sea.
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt
I've Got To Know
Sinking of the Reuben James
New York City, New York
WOODY SEZ... "Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the ways you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way the kids do. You'll be healthier. You'll feel wealthier. You'll talk wiser. You'll go higher, do better, and live longer here amongst us if you'll just only jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do. I don't want the kids to be grownup. I want to see the grown folks be kids." *Nursery Days CD
Guthrie family building sandcastles in Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, 1951
.(l to r) Nora, Joady, Woody, and Arlo Guthrie
the war, in 1946, Woody Guthrie returned to settle in Coney Island,
New York, with his wife Marjorie and their children. The peace
he had fought so hard for seemed finally within his reach. It
was during this time that Woody composed and recorded Songs
to Grow On For Mother and Child and Work Songs To Grow
On, considered children's classics which won him success
and recognition as an innovative writer of children’s songs.
approach was to write songs that dealt with topics important to
children written in language used by children such as; friendship
(“Don’t You Push Me Down”), family (“Ship
In The Sky”), community (“Howdi Doo”), chores
(“Pick It Up”), personal responsibility (“Cleano”)
and just plain fun (“Riding In My Car”).
During these years,
Woody was exposed to Coney Island’s Jewish community through
his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet. Inspired
by this new relationship, he wrote a remarkable series of songs
reflecting Jewish culture, such as “Hanuka Dance,”
“The Many and The Few” and “Mermaid’s
Toward the late 1940s,
Woody’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic,
moody and violent, creating tensions in his personal and professional
life. He was beginning to show symptoms of a rare, neurological
disease, Huntington's Chorea, a hereditary, degenerative disease
that gradually and eventually robbed him of his health, talents
and abilities. At the time, little was known about Huntington’s
Chorea. It was later discovered to be the same disease which thirty
years earlier had caused his mother's institutionalization and
Shaken by inexplicable
volatile physical and emotional symptoms, Woody left his family
once again, taking off for California with his young protégé,
Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
Arriving at his friend
Will Geer’s property, Woody met Anneke Van Kirk, a young
woman who became his third wife and with whom they had a daughter,
Mail Myself To You
Riding In My Car
WOODY SEZ ~ "I will never dread the I will die,
'cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky."
Woody at Greystone Hospital, New Jersey, 1958. Photo by Lou Gordon.
late 1940’s and early 1950’s saw a rise in anti-Communist
sentiments. Leftist and progressive-minded Americans were subjected
to Red-scare tactics such as “blacklisting”. Many people,
particularly in the arts and entertainment fields, either lost their
jobs or were prevented from working in their chosen careers. The
Weavers, along with Woody, Pete Seeger and others from their circle,
were targeted for their activist stances on such issues as the right
to unionize, equal rights, and free speech.
headed south to Florida, where friend and fellow activist Stetson
Kennedy offered blacklisted artists living space on his property.
While in the South at Kennedy’s “Beluthahatchee”,
Woody worked on a third novel, Seeds of Man, and composed
songs inspired by a heightened awareness of racial and environmental
more and more unpredictable during a final series of road trips,
Woody eventually returned to New York with Anneke, where he was
hospitalized several times. Mistakenly diagnosed and treated for
everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia, his symptoms kept worsening
and his physical condition deteriorated. Picked up for “vagrancy”
in New Jersey in 1954, he was admitted into the nearby Greystone
Psychiatric Hospital, where he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s
Chorea, the incurable degenerative nerve disorder now known as Huntington’s
Disease or HD.
these years, Marjorie Guthrie, family and friends continued to visit
and care for him. A new generation of musicians took an interest
in folk music bringing it into the mainstream as yet another folk
music revival. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Ochs,
and many other young folksingers visited Woody in the hospital,
bringing along their guitars and their songs to play for him, perhaps
even to thank him.
Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 while at Creedmoor State Hospital
in Queens, New York. His ashes were sprinkled into the waters off
of Coney Island's shore.
month later, on Thanksgiving 1967, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie
released his first commercial recording of “Alice’s
Restaurant”, which was to become the iconic anti-war anthem
for the next generation.
his lifetime, Woody Guthrie wrote nearly 3,000 song lyrics, published
two novels, created artworks, authored numerous published and unpublished
manuscripts, poems, prose, and plays and hundreds of letters and
news article which are housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New
is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any
other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the
songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that
people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a
tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody,
and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there
is something more important for those who still listen. There
is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression.
I think we call this the American spirit.” ~ John
Another Man's Done Gone
Gonna Get Through This World
This Train Is Bound For Glory
I Ain't Dead Yet
WOODY SEZ ~ "There's a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again. Sometimes when I hear music I think back over my days - and a feeling that is fifty-fifty joy and pain swells like clouds taking all kinds of shapes in my mind. Music is in all the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music - the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves, the whistle of a train, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker - kids squawling along the streets - the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert. Life is this sound, and since creation has been a song. And there is no real trick of creating words to set to music, once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song."
by Al Aumuller
lived through some of the most significant historic movements and
events of the Twentieth-Century --the Great Depression, the Great
Dust Storm, World War II, the social and the political upheavals
resulting from Unionism, the Communist Party and the Cold War--
Woody absorbed it all to become a prolific writer whose songs, ballads,
prose and poetry captured the plight of everyman. While traveling
throughout the American landscape during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s,
Woody's observations of what he saw and experienced has left for
us a lasting and sometimes haunting legacy of images, sounds, and
voices of the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people
with whom he struggled to survive despite all odds. Although the
corpus of original Woody Guthrie songs, or as Woody preferred "people's
songs" are, perhaps, his most recognized contribution to American
culture, the stinging honesty, humor, and wit found even in his
most vernacular prose writings exhibit Woody's fervent belief in
social, political, and spiritual justice.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Case Western
Reserve University presented a ten day celebration honoring Woody
Guthrie, entitled Hard Travelin'. It was the first major
conference on the legacy of Woody Guthrie complete with a photo
exhibition, lectures, films, and two benefit concerts, which were
held in support of the Woody Guthrie Archive.
2012 - Woody’s 100th birthday!
The year-long celebrations, co-produced by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli (Executive Director of the GRAMMY Museum Foundation) included; educational conferences, exhibits, adult and elementary school outreach programs & presentations, and concerts that followed Woody’s road from Oklahoma through California and on to New York City.
2013 - Woody Guthrie Center opens!
On April 28, 2013, The Woody Guthrie Center opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nora Guthrie along with Robert Santelli (Executive Director of the GRAMMY Museum Foundation) and the George Kaiser Family Foundation created the permanent home for the Woody Guthrie Archive, complete with a permanent exhibit on the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie, a temporary gallery space, and a 60-seat theater. The Woody Guthrie Center, located in the heart of the Brady Arts District, is dedicated to educating people on the powerful and intangible legacy Woody Guthrie has left.
Guthrie has been recognized for his monumental contributions and
achievements in American culture. He has been the recipient of prestigious
awards both from governmental departments and private arts organizations.
Department of the Interior, Conservation Service Award (1966)
The Songwriters' Hall of Fame inductee (1970)
The Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame inductee (1977)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (1988)
The North American Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (1996)
National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Lifetime Achievement Award (1999)
The Oklahoma Hall of Fame inductee (2006)
The Songwriters' Hall of Fame, Pioneer Award (2012)
Where's Woody Now?
New books and publications of Woody's words and drawings, such as Woody Guthrie Artworks, a book featuring many of Guthrie's original paintings, illustrations and drawings and This Land is Your Land, a children's book illustrated by folk artist Kathy Jakobsen, have brought Woody Guthrie back into the mainstream of popular culture.
In 1998, the Smithsonian Institution and the Woody Guthrie Archives collaborated on a major traveling exhibition about Woody's life and legacy. Since then, the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Woody Guthrie Publications has continued to provide traveling exhibits, public programs, multimedia presentations, film screenings, and educational performances, allowing thousands of people to experience Woody's music and creative legacy.
Musicians from a variety of backgrounds such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Ani DiFranco, The Klezmatics, Hans-Eckhardt Wenzel, and countless others, continue to draw inspiration from Woody Guthrie, re-interpreting and re-invigorating his songs for new audiences. His influence is felt throughout the world, from Native American musicians such as Keith Secola and Blackfire to Chinese Punk rockers PK14 and Danish musician Esben.
Clearly, Woody Guthrie's songs continue to speak to us all about thoughts, ideas, and feelings that are as relevant and meaningful today as when he lived them.
- Jorge Arevalo Mateus
1995-2012 Curator & Head Archivist, Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archive
Woody's songs have been recorded by artists in every musical style and genre.
Recent performances and recordings by musicians include:
Photo taken from the "Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie" tribute
in Cleveland, OH in September, 1996. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer
Country Joe McDonald
Demolition String Band
John Wesley Harding
Mike + Ruthy
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Reverend Billy + The Stop Shopping Choir
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum)
Joe Perry (Aerosmith)
Beth Nielsen Chapman
The Flatlanders (Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock)
Jay Farrar (Son Volt)
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Red Dirt Rangers
Allison Krauss & Union Station
Del McCoury Band
Old Crow Medicine Show
BLUES / JAZZ
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
Sweet Honey in the Rock
Van Dyke Parks
Michael Franti (Spearhead)
This Land Is Your Land