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In August 2012, The New York Times announced that the Kennedy Center will be throwing a centennial party for Woody Guthrie in October, “a star-studded concert with tickets topping out at $175. It was America’s ultimate tribute to a beloved troubadour, wrote the New York Times. “Through his unique music, words and style,” the Kennedy Center says, “Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.”
Poor Woody. The life and music of America’s great hobo prophet, its Dust Bowl balladeer, boiled down to this: He brought attention to the critical issues of his day, wrote Lawrence Downes in his magnificent article As Woody Turns 100, We Protest Too Little.
“Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough. They are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. They become safe enough for the Postal Service. For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat, Arlo Guthrie said in 1998, when his father was put on a 32-cent stamp.”
In another article published in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen writes: “Oklahoma has always had a troubled relationship with her native son Woody Guthrie. The communist sympathies of America’s balladeer infuriated local detractors. In 1999 a wealthy donor’s objections forced the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City to cancel a planned exhibition on Guthrie organized by the Smithsonian Institution. It wasn’t until 2006, nearly four decades after his death, that the Oklahoma Hall of Fame got around to adding him to its ranks.”
But as places from California to the New York island get ready to celebrate the centennial of Guthrie’s birth, Cohen writes, in 2012, Oklahoma is finally ready to welcome him home. The George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa plans to announce this week that it is buying the Guthrie archives from his children and building an exhibition and study center to honor his legacy.
At the time that Cohen’s article was published, Forbes magazine ranked Mr. Kaiser as the richest man in Oklahoma and No. 31 on its Forbes 400 list.
“The archive includes the astonishing creative output of Guthrie during his 55 years. There are scores of notebooks and diaries written in his precise handwriting and illustrated with cartoons, watercolors, stickers and clippings; hundreds of letters; 581 artworks; a half-dozen scrapbooks; unpublished short stories, novels and essays; as well as the lyrics to the 3,000 or more songs he scribbled on scraps of paper, gift wrap, napkins, paper bags and place mats, Cohen wrote. “Much of the material has rarely or never been seen in public, including the lyrics to most of the songs. Guthrie could not write musical notation, so the melodies have been lost.”
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967) is best known as an American singer-songwriter and folk musician, whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children’s songs, ballads and improvised works. He frequently performed with the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists displayed on his guitar. His best-known song is “This Land Is Your Land.” Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. Such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg and Tom Paxton have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.
Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues songs. Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States communist groups, though he was seemingly not a member of any.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including american folk musician Arlo Guthrie. He is the grandfather of musician Sarah Lee Guthrie. Woody died from complications of Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.
Woody Guthrie was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 1997.
Arriving in New York, Guthrie, known as “the Oklahoma cowboy,” was embraced by its leftist folk music community. For a time, he slept on a couch in Will Geer’s apartment. Guthrie made his first recordings—several hours of conversation and songs recorded by the folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress—as well as an album, Dust Bowl Ballads, for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey.
Guthrie was tired of the radio overplaying Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” He thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent. Partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for “God Bless America,” he wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” in February 1940; it was subtitled “God Blessed America for Me.” The melody is adapted from an old gospel song, “Oh My Loving Brother.” This was best known as “When The World’s On Fire,” sung by the country group The Carter Family. Guthrie signed the manuscript with the comment, “All you can write is what you see, Woody G., N.Y., N.Y., N.Y.” He protested against class inequality in the fourth and sixth verses:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said “no trespassing.”
[In another version, the sign reads “Private Property”]
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
These verses were often omitted in subsequent recordings, sometimes by Guthrie. Although the song was written in 1940, it was four years before he recorded it for Moses Asch in April 1944. Sheet music was produced and given to schools by Howie Richmond sometime later.
In March 1940, Guthrie was invited to play at a benefit hosted by The John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers, to raise money for migrant workers. There he met the folksinger Pete Seeger, and the two men became good friends.
Guthrie had some success in New York at this time as a guest on CBS’s radio program Back Where I Come From and used his influence to get a spot on the show for his friend Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Ledbetter’s Tenth Street apartment was a gathering spot for the leftwing musician circle in New York at the time, and Guthrie and Ledbetter were good friends, as they had busked together at bars in Harlem.
By the late 1940s, Guthrie’s health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), but in 1952, it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder inherited from his mother. Believing him to be a danger to their children, Marjorie suggested he return to California without her; they eventually divorced.
Guthrie, increasingly unable to control his muscles, was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital until 1966, and finally at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center until his death. Marjorie and the children visited Guthrie at Greystone every Sunday. They answered fan mail and played on the hospital grounds. Eventually a longtime fan of Guthrie invited the family to his nearby home for the Sunday visits. This lasted until Guthrie was moved to the Brooklyn State Hospital, which was closer to where Marjorie lived.
Guthrie’s illness was essentially untreated, because of a lack of information about the disease. His death helped raise awareness of the disease and led Marjorie to help found the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease, which became the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people were inspired by folk singers including Guthrie. These “folk revivalists” became more politically aware in their music than those of the previous generation. The American Folk Revival was beginning to take place, focused on the issues of the day, such as the civil rights movement and free speech movement. Pockets of folk singers were forming around the country in places such as Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. One of Guthrie’s visitors at Greystone Park was the 19-year-old Bob Dylan who idolized Guthrie. Dylan wrote of Guthrie’s repertoire: “The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” After learning of Guthrie’s whereabouts, Dylan regularly visited him.
Guthrie died of complications of Huntington’s disease on October 3, 1967. By the time of his death, his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to them in part through Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, his ex-wife Marjorie and other new members of the folk revival, and his son Arlo.
Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times
More about Woody in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woody_Guthrie
Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land: