This week marks Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. Like most Americans these days, I was first exposed to Woody Guthrie’s music through the folk anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” My parents had a recording of that song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, which I loved to listen to as a little girl. Later, I was captivated by Ry Cooder singing “Deportees,” a heart-wrenching ballad Guthrie wrote in 1948. Do you have a favorite Woody Guthrie song? Let us know!
The Smithsonian Folkways has preserved Guthrie’s music archive. His life story carries the same powerful themes as his songs.
Native Born “Okie”
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. His parents, businessman Charles Edward Guthrie and his wife Nora Belle, named their son after the governor of New Jersey who would later serve as the 28th President of the United States. Woody grew up in the days of the Dust Bowl, and his life’s work as a songwriter would bear witness to that hardship.
Woody Guthrie-inspired musicians talk about his legacy in honor of his centennial:
Father Charlie Guthrie was actively involved in the Ku Klux Klan, and the violent racism in Okemah inspired at least three of his son’s early protest songs. Woody inherited two-life defining traits from his mother: 1) a profound love of music and 2) Huntington’s Disease, a debilitating neurological syndrome that led inexorably to his diminished mental capacity and death at the age of 54 in 1967, after being hospitalized for 13 years. (His mother was institutionalized and died when Woody was a young teenager.)
Woody traveled throughout his teens and for much of his twenties, witnessing firsthand the hardships of the working class during the Great Depression. He married for the first time at 19 but continued to ramble, heading out to California where he played guitar and sang in the homeless and migrant workers’ camps.
Prolific Singer Songwriter, Prolific Father
Beginning his career as a songwriter in Los Angeles, Woody eventually moved to New York City and became a beacon for activist musicians. He wrote over 1000 songs, many of which celebrated the workingman and the spirit of the people. In 1940, he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” perhaps his most famous song, in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he found too complacent. He recorded other influential ballads, including “Grand Coulee Dam,” with Alan Lomax in 1941. After serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, he divorced his first wife Mary Jennings (mother of his first three children) and married Majorie Mazia (mother of four children, including singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie) until 1953. That same year, he briefly married Anneke van Kirk and had a daughter with her, Lorinna Lynn Guthrie.
PHOTO GALLERY: Woody Guthrie, His Life & Legend
Legacy Lives On
Guthrie’s leftist politics alienated many during the 1950s when America was in the throes of the Red Scare. But with the revival of folk music in the 1960s, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and others acknowledged Guthrie’s influence on their life’s work. Today school children all over the country sing a non-political version of “This Land is Your Land”—the verse questioning private property rights is left out—and the song continues to be an appealing celebration of America.