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GUTHRIE, WOODROW WILSON [WOODY]

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GUTHRIE, WOODROW WILSON [WOODY] (1912–1967). Woody Guthrie, folk and protest singer, was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912. He was the son of Charles Edward and Nora Belle (Tanner) Guthrie. After Woody’s mother was committed to a mental hospital, he followed his once-prosperous father to be with relatives in Pampa, where Woody lived from 1929 to 1937. An indifferent student, he dropped out of Pampa High School, but devoured books on psychology, religion, and Eastern philosophy at the local library and found a spiritual mentor in the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. He supported himself by odd jobs, especially sign painting.

Performing with bands at nightclubs and radio stations in the Panhandle, Guthrie found his calling—poet and lyricist—and his tools—his voice and his guitar—and began developing skills that later gained him a reputation as writer, cartoonist, and down‑home philosopher. He married a Pampa girl, Mary Jennings, in 1933 and experienced the pain of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, which gave him subject matter for many songs. The most memorable song of Guthrie's Pampa years, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," was a response to the great dust storm of April 14, 1935. When that storm hit, some Pampans believed that the end of the world was upon them and that there was just time for final goodbyes.

Tired of dust and poverty, Guthrie left for Los Angeles in 1937 and found local fame on radio station KFVD, where, to fill hours of time on the air, he turned out lyrics at stream-of‑consciousness speed, usually setting them to someone else's music. His listeners were often Okies, Arkies, and Texans who, in search of the American dream, had fled to the West Coast; there, Guthrie told them with biting irony, they would find it only if they brought "Do Re Mi." Some longed nostalgically for "The Oklahoma Hills" and all listened knowingly while Guthrie sang "Dust Bowl Refugee" and "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore." Thrilled by the hydroelectric power flowing from massive New Deal dams on the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, Guthrie composed "Roll On, Columbia," which celebrates the New Deal, and "Pastures of Plenty," which celebrates the nobility of nearby migrant laborers. Both were political statements. So was "This Land Is Your Land," written in 1940 to tell Guthrie's countrymen that America belongs to the many and not the few. Often associated with socialist and communist philosophies, Guthrie, though not an official member of the Communist party, wrote the column “Woody Sez” for the organization’s New York newspaper, The Daily Worker, from 1939 to 1940.

Although Guthrie was an inveterate wanderer, after 1940 he usually called New York City home. Many of the lyrics of this period, especially those for children, were light, singable, and fun, but others continued to strike with a populist rage against the putative faceless rich men of Eastern boardrooms, each with his "Philadelphia Lawyer" who drove farmers from their land, robbing with fountain pens instead of guns. John Steinbeck had immortalized (and greatly fictionalized) the victims in The Grapes of Wrath, and Woody Guthrie retold Steinbeck's story of angry impotence in "Tom Joad." Though singing about rejection and being down and out, Guthrie was rich and famous. The 1940s were the best years in his troubled life. For a brief time he performed with other folk musicians, including Pete Seeger, in a group known as the Almanac Singers. He taped his songs for the Library of Congress. He performed on CBS radio shows. He published the first of several books, Bound for Glory, later made into a movie. He survived two German torpedoes in the United States Merchant Marine. And after he was divorced by Mary, he married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, an unlikely union of a farm-belt populist and a beautiful Jewish dancer in the Martha Graham company.

Happiness was not to last. By the early 1950s Guthrie's period of great productivity—he wrote perhaps a thousand songs—was over. It had lasted no more than sixteen years, from about 1937, when he left Pampa, to about 1953, when Huntington's disease, an incurable hereditary illness of the central nervous system which had killed his mother, put him in the hospital. He spent nearly all of his last fourteen years there, from 1953 until his death. Guthrie had three children with his first wife, Mary; four with Marjorie, including the singer Arlo Guthrie; and one with Anneke Marshall during their brief marriage in the early 1950s. His body was cremated after his death in New York on October 3, 1967.

The protest singers of the 1960s canonized Woody Guthrie, seeing him as their forerunner and mentor and espousing his leftist ideals. Bob Dylan was but one of those who went as pilgrims to his bedside. They loved the old lyrics that roasted the “establishment.” They counted his Bohemian lifestyle as virtue and not vice. They envied him for being something they were not, a supposedly authentic man of the people whose lyrics had given voice to desperate migrants of the depression years. Guthrie was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. In 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence on the genre, and "This Land Is Your Land" received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1989. In 1998 Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, Volumes 1 & 2 received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award for Folk Album. A rare live recording, The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 received a Grammy for Best Historical Album in 2008.

Pampans held their first annual Tribute to Woody Guthrie on October 3, 1992, which Gov. Ann Richards proclaimed as "Woody Guthrie Day" in Texas. City officials dedicated a cast iron sculpture 150 feet long with the musical staff and notes of "This Land," and then named U.S. Highway 60, which crosses the Panhandle, the Woody Guthrie Memorial Highway. In the 2010s Pampans continued to hold a Woody Guthrie Tribute each October and had established the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center in the old Harris Drug Store (a place where Guthrie had worked in Pampa). Plans were being made to celebrate Guthrie's one-hundredth birthday in 2012. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American-Statesman, July 16, 1991. Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life (New York: Knopf, 1980). Richard Pascal, "Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie: American Prophet–Singers and Their People," Journal of American Studies 24 (April 1990). Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (New York: Penguin, 1990). Edward Robbin, Woody Guthrie and Me: An Intimate Reminiscence (Berkeley: Lancaster-Miller, 1979). Texas Observer, July 24, 1992. Mildred Tolbert, "Woody Guthrie Country: Pampa, Texas," Greater Llano Estacado Southwest Heritage 12 (Spring 1982). Keith Windschuttle, “John Steinbeck,” The New Criterion 20 (June 2002). Woody Guthrie (http://www.woodyguthrie.org), accessed July 28, 2008. The Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center: Pampa's Tribute to Woody Guthrie (http://woodyguthriepampatx.com/), accessed October 8, 2011.

Richard B. Hughes

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Richard B. Hughes, "GUTHRIE, WOODROW WILSON [WOODY]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fguuh), accessed November 29, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on August 30, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.