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Woody Guthrie was a singer-songwriter, and one of the legendary figures of American folk music.
American folk musician Woody Guthrie's songs and legacy continue to influence music and politics. To celebrate his 100th birthday, City Winery in New York City held a three day festival of concerts celebrating his life and work.
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Woody Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs, including "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Yuh)" and "Union Maid." After serving in WWII, he continued to perform for farmer and worker groups. "This Land Is Your Land" was his most famous song, and it became an unofficial national anthem. His autobiography, Bound for Glory (1943), was filmed in 1976. His son Arlo also achieved success as a musician.
"Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple."
"I like to write about wherever I happen to be."
Born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie was the second son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. The future folk hero was born just weeks after Woodrow Wilson was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president in 1912; as his namesake later told a crowd of concertgoers, "My father was a hard, fist-fighting Woodrow Wilson Democrat, so Woodrow Wilson was my name."
Both parents were musically inclined and taught young Woody a wide array of folk tunes, songs that he soon learned to play on his guitar and harmonica. Tragedy and personal loss visited the budding musician early and often throughout his childhood, providing a bleak context for his future songs and supplying him with a wry perspective on life.
In short order, Guthrie experienced the accidental death of his older sister Clara, a fire that destroyed the family home, his father's financial ruin, and the institutionalization of his mother, who was suffering from Huntington's disease. At the age of just 14, Guthrie and his siblings were left to fend for themselves while their father worked in Texas to repay his debts. As a teenager, Guthrie turned to busking in the streets for food or money, honing his skills as a musician while developing the keen social conscience that would later be so integral to his legendary music.
When Guthrie was 19, he married his first wife, Mary Jennings, in Texas, where he had gone to be with his father. Eventually, Woody and Mary would have three children, Gwen, Sue and Bill. The Great Depression hit the Guthrie family hard, and when the drought-stricken Great Plains transformed into the infamous Dust Bowl, Guthrie left his family in 1935 to join the thousands of "Okies" who were migrating West in search of work. Like many other "Dust Bowl refugees," Guthrie spent his time hitchhiking, riding freight trains, and when he could, quite literally singing for his supper.
With his guitar and harmonica, Guthrie sang in the hobo and migrant camps, developing into a musical spokesman for labor and other left-wing causes. These hardscrabble experiences would provide the bedrock for Guthrie's songs and stories, as well as fodder for his future autobiography, "Bound for Glory." It was also during these years that Guthrie developed a taste for the road that would never quite leave him.
In 1937, Guthrie arrived in California, where he landed a job with partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman as a radio performer of traditional folk music on KFVD in Los Angeles. The duo soon garnered a loyal following from the disenfranchised "Okies" living in migrant camps across California and it wasn't long before Guthrie's populist sentiments found their way into his songs.
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