Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, 14 July 1912, Okemah OK; d 3 October 1967, Queens, NY) Singer, songwriter, guitarist; dean of American folk artists, already a legend when struck down with Huntington's chorea, an inherited, progressive wasting disease which finally killed him. He was born into a pioneer family; his sister was killed in an oil stove explosion; his father failed in a property business and his mother was committed to a mental institution. Woody quit high school at 16 and hit the road with a harmonica in his pocket, playing and singing in pool halls, on street corners, etc; learned guitar, worked with his cousin Jack Guthrie in uncle Jeff Guthrie's magic shows. To West Coast '35 already writing songs which would total about 1,000, including folk classics 'Pastures Of Plenty', 'This Land Is Your Land', 'This Train Is Bound For Glory', 'Roll On, Columbia', 'Reuben James' (about the sinking of a ship), etc. He often put new words to old tunes, but as a true folk artist opposed restrictions of copyright laws on his own songs as well as others'.

He sang on the radio in Los Angeles and in Mexico; to NYC on radio's Cavalcade Of America, Pipe Smoking Time, other programs; recorded series of 'Dust Bowl Ballads' for Alan Lomax's Library of Congress archive. His sympathy for the underdog led him to entertain migrant workers and union members; he wrote for Communist papers the Daily Worker in NYC, People's World on the West Coast; his guitar carried a sign saying 'This machine kills fascists'. Back to West Coast '38, singing with Will Geer and Cisco Houston on radio and in migrant camps. His mimeographed songbook On A Slow Train Through California inspired Pete Seeger; back in NYC '40 he met Seeger at a concert for migrant workers; back west he was commissioned to write songs for the Bonneville Power Administration: 17 recordings from May '41 were rediscovered '87 and commercially issued. The Almanac Singers were formed '41 NYC with Seeger, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and others: they sang across the country, then settled in a co-operative apartment house in Greenwich Village '41. Guthrie worked briefly with the Headline Singers (Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee). He wrote an article called 'Ear Music' for the magazine Common Ground and the response led to autobiography Bound For Glory '43. He joined the Merchant Marine with Houston that year: they collected musical instruments, sang in North Africa, Sicily, UK, and survived torpedo attacks (memoir Woody, Cisco And Me: Seamen Three In The Merchant Marine '97 by Jim Longhi was described as 'a wildly hysterical adventure' by Arlo Guthrie).

After WWII Woody recorded hundreds of songs for Folkways. When the Weavers took his 'So Long (It's Been Good To Know Yuh)' into the pop charts '51, the song had been written originally to cheer up migrant workers, adapted as a patriotic war song and as a jingle for selling pipe tobacco; far from being outraged, Woody was there in the studio, helping the Weavers adapt it yet again: 'For better or worse,' wrote Colin Irwin in Mojo '97, 'this was the folk process at work.' He was seriously ill from the mid-'50s and bedridden in '60s; his son Arlo began performing his songs; his constant visitors included young Bob Dylan. A prose/poem collection Born To Win was published '65; Woody Sez '74 was compiled from his daily column for People's World '39-40. Bound For Glory was filmed '77 with David Carradine as Guthrie, the film not highly rated. Tribute To Woody Guthrie concerts were recorded at Carnegie Hall January '68, Hollywood Bowl September '70, including Dylan, Arlo, Seeger, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Jack Elliott and many others, the script by Lampell from Woody's writings performed by actors Peter Fonda, Will Geer, Robert Ryan: two-disc sets were issued '72, one on Columbia, another on WB. Woody's own LP compilations were in and out of print on RCA, Tradition, Stinson, Folkways; CD reissues included Dust Bowl Ballads '40, Columbia River Collection and two-disc Library Of Congress Recordings (with spoken commentary) on Rounder; The Early Years on CMA; Ballads Of Sacco And Vanzetti '47, Long Ways To Travel '44-9, Struggle, Original Vision (with Leadbelly) and Sings Folk Songs (with Leadbelly, Houston etc) all on Smithsonian/Folkways; Worried Man Blues and Immortal on Collectables; Sing Out with Seeger on Collector's Edition; Woody's Grow Big Songs for children on WB including the whole Guthrie family. Greatest Songs on Vanguard has his songs sung by Guthrie, Houston, Joan Baez, Odetta, the Weavers and others. Ten-CD anthology Songs For Political Action '96 on Bear Family, subtitled Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1926-1953 with a 200-page book puts Guthrie and others in their unique context.

In 1944 he recorded hundreds of songs for Stinson, a label run by Herbert Harris with his partner Moe Asche, who later formed Folkways. The nickel-played copper discs were undisturbed until a five-year-long trek through legal deals and technical renovation reulted in a four-CD set on Rounder, My Dusty Road, in 2009, some tracks with Houston and Terry. The quality is said to be so good as to render worthless decades of shoddily-produced bootlegs, his voice and guitar startlingly alive, like a hootenanny on your sofa: 'Defiant joy, warm good humor and a goofy playfulness abound', wrote Luke Torn in the Wall Street Journal.

At a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria '88, the room was full of superstars and music industry bigshots, a table for eight cost $10,000 and there was security to keep the public out; Arlo accepted his father's induction saying, 'I don't know where Woody would be tonight if he were alive, but I can guarantee you he wouldn't be here' (quoted by Fred Goodman in The Mansion On The Hill '97). Arlo's sister Nora discovered hundreds of Woody's lyrics that were never set to music and decided that UK maverick Billy Bragg might be the man to revive the unanswered questions in the 1990s. Meanwhile, after persecuting his family in the early '50s, the USA is thinking about putting him on a postage stamp; 'It's the only way they'll ever have him licked,' wrote Irwin.

Woody's cousin Jack (b 13 November 1915, Olive OK; d 15 January 1948) sang with Woody on the radio '37, had his own no. 1 country hit '45 with Woody's song 'Oklahoma Hills' (he was in the service in the South Pacific when the record hit). He sang 'Oakie Boogie' in a film, Hollywood Barn Dance '47, but by then had been diagnosed with tuberculosis.