Woody Guthrie's American Song
Woody Guthrie Biography
Weathered, lean, and kindly, Woody Guthrie’s face is the face of American folk music. Born in 1912, this astonishingly prolific composer is to the gritty, acoustic story-song what Louis Armstrong is to jazz and Elvis Presley is to rock & roll—the clearest, deepest source.
He was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. His father was a singer, banjo player, and sometime professional boxer. Guthrie left home at sixteen and roamed through Texas and Louisiana, working as a newsboy, sign painter, spittoon washer, and farm laborer. He also sang in the streets.
While visiting his uncle Jeff Guthrie in Pampa, Texas, in 1929, he learned to play guitar. During the Depression, Guthrie rode the rails as a hobo until around 1937, when he settled in Los Angeles and hosted a radio show on KFVD for a dollar a day.
After World War II began, he relocated to New York. There he met the Weavers and Pete Seeger. He briefly embraced communism and wrote a column for The People’s Daily World, but he was denied membership in the Communist Party because he refused to renounce his religion.
Although Guthrie’s leftist leanings did not endear him to the U.S. Government, his anti-Hitler songs did. His guitar had a sign on it saying, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” From 1943 to 1945 Guthrie was with the U.S. Merchant Marine in England, Italy, and Africa.
In 1945 he married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia. They had four children: Cathy (who was killed in a fire at four), Nora, Joady, and Arlo.
During his years of riding the rails, Guthrie developed a drinking problem. In 1952 he was diagnosed as alcoholic and confined to a mental institution before his problem was correctly identified as Huntington’s chorea, a genetically transmitted degenerative disorder of the nervous system from which Guthrie’s mother had died.
The disease kept him largely inactive and hospitalized during the last decade of his life, but in the 1930s and ’40s he reinvented the American folk ballad as a vehicle for social comment and protest, laying the groundwork for Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bruce Springsteen, John Doe, Joe Strummer, and many other folk and rock singer/songwriters.
—This biography is adapted from material in the Rolling Stone Artists website and The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001), with contributions from Mark Kem.
Woodie Guthrie photo by Al Aumuller
Executive Director's Note
Here at the Freight we're delighted to celebrate the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth with a concert production of Peter Glazer's Woody Guthrie's American Song. Presenting a two week run of any production is a unique departure for us, but there’s no better vehicle for that departure than Peter’s masterful offering of the words and music of Woody Guthrie, who, 45 years after his passing, ranks as one of our most influential and inspiring artists. Woody’s life and work pre-figured, by a few short years, an explosive uncovering of the folk roots of American culture and a veritable renaissance of authenticity in music. Woody’s passion for justice and drive for creative engagement left us with a deep, enduring, and awe-inspiring body of songs and writings.
For me, there is an unexpected personal story that this production brings forward. As we began assembling the cast, Susan Lefkowich, our incomparable Director of Development, learned that the family of the late Fresno-based folklorist, Gene Bluestein, possessed a collection of letters Woody had written in 1955 to the kids at the summer camp where Gene, as a young and inspired friend of Woody’s, worked as Music Director. Earlier that year doctors had diagnosed Woody as suffering from Huntington’s Disease, a rare and disabling neurological disorder. Gene encouraged his young charges to send postcards to the composer of their dining hall and campfire favorites who was now entering the hospital where he would spend the final years of his life. Amazingly enough, Woody answered each of the postcards. In preparing our lobby display of copies of the hand-written letters to the kids, I learned that Gene had pulled this correspondence together on the shore of Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, at Camp Hawthorn where my brother, sister, and I had spent more than a few summers. While we had missed out on the postcards and letters by only a year, it’s clear that we had spent those summer days and nights in a place bubbling over with the creative energy flowing in the wake of Gene’s invocations of Woody’s spirit and ethos. When we sang “This Land is Your Land”—which happened almost every day—the words fired our imaginations as a testament to a deep commitment to freedom and equality “for you and me” as well as to the limitless possibilities of artistic expression inherent in the vista of that “endless skyway.”
Woody Guthrie’s American Song celebrates a life and a body of work that resonate as freshly today as ever. Whether you’re a long-time fan, or just now learning about him, I hope you find your own connection to what Woody, in his own words, set out to accomplish:
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.
Thank you and Happy Birthday, Woody.
Listen to sample tracks from upcoming artists.