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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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In 1940, Guthrie's wanderlust led him to New York City, where he was warmly embraced by leftist artists, union organizers and folk musicians. Through fruitful collaboration with the likes of Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Will Geer, Guthrie's career blossomed. He took up social causes and helped establish folk music not only as a force for change,
but also as a viable new commercial genre within the music business. Guthrie's success as a songwriter with the Almanac Singers helped launch him into the popular consciousness, garnering him even greater critical acclaim. The ensuing fame and hardships of the road led to the end of Guthrie's marriage in 1943. A year later, he would go on to record his most famous song, "This Land is Your Land," an iconic populist anthem which remains popular today and is regarded by many as a kind of alternative national anthem.
During World War II, the singer/songwriter joined the Merchant Marine and began composing music with a more strident antifascist message. (Guthrie was famous for performing with the slogan, "This Machine Kills Fascists," scrawled across his acoustic guitar.) While he was out of the Merchant Marine on furlough, he married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, and after the war the couple made their home in Coney Island, New York, eventually filling the house with four children: Cathy, Arlo, Joady and Nora. This period in Guthrie's life would prove to be his most musically prolific, as he continued to produce political anthems while also writing children's classics like, "Don't You Push Me Down," "Ship In The Sky" and "Howdi Doo."
By the late 1940s, Guthrie began to show symptoms of the rare neurological disease Huntington's Chorea, which had killed his mother. The extremely unpredictable physical and emotional symptoms Guthrie experienced shook him deeply, so he decided to leave his family to hit the road with his protégé, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Guthrie arrived in California, and began living in a compound owned by activist and actor Will Geer, populated largely by performers who had been blacklisted during the Red Scare of the early Cold War years. Soon, Guthrie met and married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk, with whom he would have his eighth child, Lorina Lynn.
Guthrie's health continued to deteriorate in the late 1950s, and he was hospitalized until his death in 1967. His marriage to Van Kirk collapsed under the weight of his disease, and the couple eventually divorced. During the last years of his life, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie, and their children would visit him in the hospital regularly, as would Guthrie's most famous heir in the world of folk music, Bob Dylan. Dylan moved to New York City to seek out his idol and eventually Guthrie warmed to the young singer, who would later say of Guthrie's music, "The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them."
While Guthrie passed away of complications from his Huntington's Chorea on October 3, 1967, his musical legacy remains firmly cemented in American history. A generation of folk singers inspired by Guthrie in the 1950s and 1960s went on to fuel some of the most dramatic social change of the century. Despite his folk hero status, Guthrie was modest, and was known for playing down his own creative genius. "I like to write about wherever I happen to be," he once said. "I just happened to be in the Dust Bowl, and because I was there and the dust was there, I thought, well, I'll write a song about it."
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