There are countless biographies of Woody. For, people have found his life story to be as fascinating and useful as his songs, perhaps more. This section of the project is yet another rendition of his life. It is in no way comprehensive, but will give a background necessary to understand the rest of this project. Read it first, skim it, or refer back to it as you go along. Joe Klein wrote what is considered by most to be the definitive biography on Woody (more on that later). Klein's book as well as other web and textual biographies are referenced in the bibliography.
Woody was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. His childhood was rather gothic and macabre, fitting to its waning wild west backdrop. Klein paints this backdrop in describing a race war ignited by efforts to squelch the black vote in the year of 1910. The war culminated in a shooting of Okemah's white deputy and a mob from the town lynching a black family from the next town over. Photographs of these lynchings, made into postcards, Klein notes, were a favorite item at the local store. 1
A member of this mob, Woody's father, Charley, was a fist-fighting, finagling local politician, hell-bent on success. He taught himself bookkeeping and law, among other things, through avid reading and correspondence courses. Charley had his real, but ultimately short-lived success in land speculation. Politician and real-estate man, he made enough to begin supporting a family and to build them a home. However, in what was to be the first of several tragic fires in Woody's history, the house burned down in about a month after its completion. In 1920, an oil-boom turned the town of Okemah upside down; gamblers, roughnecks, loose women, and the Ku Klux Klan moved in as well as more cut-throat land speculators who, along with the oil, transformed the business and put an end to Charley Guthrie's winning streak, making him, as he put it, "the only man who ever lost a farm a day for thirty days."
The course of Nora Guthrie's life (Woody's mother), was equally dramatic. She loved to play the piano and sing the songs that had been passed down to her from her family. It was from Nora that Woody learned many of the old songs and the style which he would appropriate and adapt for the rest of his life. Nora had Huntington's chorea, the same disease which Woody came to manifest in his later life, just as his mother had. The disease basically results in the loss of control over one's mind and body, and is fatal. Nora's moods, behavior, and temper were increasingly beyond her control and an increasingly powerful and disturbing force in her family who remained ignorant of the cause. Her behavior was food for town gossip, especially after the death of her eldest daughter, Clara.
Klein explains that one day Nora insisted that Clara stay home from school to help with house work, much to Clara's protest. Ever since the fire which destroyed their house, Nora had a fear of fires. Clara decided to scare her mother by setting her clothes on fire, intending to put it right out. But she was unable to do so and before her mother could register what was happening, she was up in flames and rolling on the ground in the front yard. A neighbor put the fire out, but not before it had done enough damage to result in Clara's death the next day. 2
In 1927, after financial failures and trying relocations, Nora set Charley on fire. Charley survived and Nora was put into an insane asylum where she spent the rest of her life. The truth of these two stories, as Klein tells them, were kept from the family. Clara's death was thought to be an accident and it was believed that Charley either set himself on fire or suffered an accident as well. A haunting pall of mystery surrounded these incidents for Woody, as it did his entire childhood.
In addition to the family dramas of his childhood, characteristics of his own personality and appearance made Woody a bit of an outsider. But it was not long after his father was hospitalized for the burns and his mother put into the asylum, that the family relocated to Pampa, Texas. Charley sent his younger children to his sister in Pampa, joining them later. Woody, at the age of 16, lived alone and then with a friend's family in Okemah for a while, traveled around, visiting relatives and living a bit of a hobo's life in the summer of 1929, and then joined his family in Pampa.
Perhaps the best testament to the impact of Woody's childhood is his own statement about it, heard on the Library of Congress recordings. The tone of his voice is as telling and meaningful as the drama of the events he talks about, or around, as the case might be.Library of Congress recording
It was in Pampa that Woody really started to explore his various talents and interests. Of a philosophical bent, he exhausted the town's library and wrote his own book, the first of many pages to bloom from Woody's typewriter. He got a correspondence course on cartoons which supplemented his natural talent in drawing. He made money painting signs and he started a muscial group with friends, called the Corncob Trio. His first radio appearance was in Pampa with the Corncob Trio, advertising the next dance that they were to play. It was also here that he met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, the sister of Matt Jennings, one of the Corncob Trio. They married in 1933, Woody was 21, and would have three children.
Woody had made it easily through the thirties compared to others because of the variety of his skills and talents, because he was experienced with living by small means, and because he didn't care about money and success the way others did. In 1935 the Great Dust Storm hit Pampa and Woody, like most everyone else, started to leave town in 1936. He would leave his family behind and go on trips to the Southwest, visiting family and friends and living on the road. His song repertoire grew as he traveled, meeting other people on the road coming from a variety of regions and bringing their songs with them. Everywhere he went, these fellow migrants wanted him to play the old songs they had heard their own family sing at home.
One trip took him to California. It wasn't a good trip. The Los Angeles police had set up road blocks, the "Bum Blockade", to keep the migrants from entering the state, requiring that they have a certain amount of money to enter. woody would later write a song about this, "Do Re Mi". The flood of migrants often forced him off the road and into the dangerous past time of freight-hopping. He was kicked out of the town of Tracy when found sleeping in a storage building belonging to the railroad, and spent the night under a highway bridge in the cold with other migrants.
Nevertheless, in 1937, he headed back to California for the second time. This time he even sent for Mary and the kids to join him, as he was doing well with a radio program on the Los Angeles station KFVD. He first played with his uncle, Jack, but then when Jack left, he paired up with friend, Maxine Crissman, in the Woody and Lefty Lou show. The show featured the old songs and some of Woody's original adaptations of them. It also included what Woody called his "Cornpone Philosophy" in which he would tell stories and wax philosophic in the persona of a pure hillbilly yokel. The show was very popular with an audience of people like those migrants Woody had met on his travel, who, having left their farms, had settled in the Los Angeles area. Their fans wrote many adoring letters, identifying Woody and Lefty Lou as two of their own, and were sad to see the show end in June of 1938. Following this show, Frank Burke, owner of KFVD, allotted Woody a half-hour program of his own once a day for one dollar a month which was okay with Woody.
It was also in California, that Woody was first introduced to the Communist Party by Ed Robbin on KFVD who was a correspondendt for Communist Party's paper, People's World, and by actor, Will Geer. He played at countless labor strikes, union meetings, migrant camps, and Communist Hollywood parties with actor, Will Geer, and wrotefor The Light, another Communist paper, and People's World. Shortly after leaving KFVD, The Light sent Woody back out on the road to investigate the conditions of the migrant Okies. According to Klein, the migrant culture Woody found this time was different: bitter, hardened, angrier, and more open to the action proposed by the union men who were seeking them out. Woody was angered, himself, by what he saw and, as Klein diplomatically puts it, "having spent most of the 1930's on the sidelines, Woody finally was spoiling for a fight. And, as he looked around, the people who seemed to be fighting hardest for the things he believed in were members of the Communist Party." 3
In August of 1939, Stalin made a pact with Hitler, and while others were daunted, Woody remained faithful to the Communist Party as it continued to be the one group that was fighting for those things he believed in. His position caused tensions for him within the Communist community and at KFVD specifically, offending the station owner, Frank Burke, costing him his show.
At this point, Woody packed it up and left town, dropped his family off at Pampa and headed to join Will Geer in New York.
In 1940, as he hitched his way from Pampa to New York, Woody wrote what is unquestionably his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land". Klein tells the story:
"The trip wasn't very pleasant, as Woody had to hitch rides in the wind and snow. Worse than the weather, though, was the fact that `God Bless America,' Irving Berlin's patriotic pop tune, seemed to be everywhere that winter. He had heard it in Pampa, in Konawa, on car radios, in diners, and it seemed that every time he stopped in a roadhouse for a shot of warm-up whiskey some maudlin joker would plunk a nickel in a jukebox and play it just for spite.... `God Bless America,' indeed-it was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver's seat. Some sort of response obviously was called for and, as he hitched north and east through Appalachia's foggy ghostlands, a string of words began to take shape in Woody's mind." 4
As with other songs, Woody's most famous song was written to combat popular songs of the time with their messages of negativity and complacency which so bothered him.
Woody arrived in New York and stayed with Will Geer and his wife, Herta. On March 3, Woody played in a "Grapes of Wrath Evening", a benefit for the "John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers". It featured other legendary folk musicians such as Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson. And it was here that Woody met Alan Lomax.
Lomax was the assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington. He and his father had traveled the South, visiting prisons and recording the inmates' songs. It was on one such visit that they discovered Leadbelly. Alan's father, John, was a college administrator and the two of them had an anthropological and historical interest in folk music. Alan was also interested in the political uses of folk music as a weapon of the proletariat. In this March third performance, Alan saw the fulfillment of his hopes and interests in folk music in the form of Woody Guthrie.
Woody was then invited to stay for some weeks with the Lomaxes in Washington. That month, Alan recorded Woody's songs and interviewed him about his life and travels. The result was what is now a three disc set from the Library of Congress Archives. Woody also showed Alan some of his writing, and Alan, much impressed, encouraged him to write an autobiography. Finally, it was also in Washington that Woody first got to know Pete Seeger, an aspiring folk musician, son of folklorist, Charles Seeger, and Alan's assistant. Pete spent a lot of time learning from Woody, who had captivated him at the March third performance as well.
Returning to New York, Woody made an appearance on a radio show, "Columbia School of the Air" on CBS and attracted the praise of the communist publications, "People's World" and the "Daily Worker", making him a hit in the New York Communist community. Woody's "Woody Sez" column began to appear in the "Daily Worker". In May, he recorded a record, Dust Bowl Ballads for Victor records. He and Pete then made a quick trip West to visit Mary and the kids.
When he returned Woody made an appearance on the radio show "Back Where I Come From" on CBS. This led to many other radio offers, including hosting "Pipe Smoking Time" on CBS. He took the offer, and Mary and the kids joined him in New York. However, the success didn't last long. The show was highly structured and allowed for little spontaneity. The commercialism of "Pipe Smoking Time" and the column for the "Daily Worker" were not a comfortable combination. It was difficult to maintain a sense of authenticity and integrity when the lyrics of the opening song, a bastardized version of Woody's "So Long", suggested that the Dust Bowl Balladeer had sold out:
Howdy friend, well it's sure good to know you
Howdy friend, well it's sure good to know you
Load up your pipe and take your life easy,
With Model Tobacco to light up your way
We're glad to be with you today.
By January of 1941, Woody packed up the family and headed abruptly West. They ended up in California. Communicating by letter, Alan Lomax continued to encourage Woody to write an autobiography, and he began work on "Bound For Glory". Woody tried to get his job back at KFVD in Los Angeles, to no avail. The Los Angeles Woody came to now was quite different. In just a few years, the Okies and other migrants had blended into the prosperity of the early pre-war Forties.
Woody was then offered a thirty-day contract to write songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon, when the possibility of appearing in their documentary fell through. He wrote twenty-eight songs in what was to be the most productive month of his song-writing career.
At the end of his month in the Pacific Northwest, Woody received a letter from Pete Seeger inviting him to join the Almanac Singers, a folk group which Pete had formed in Woody's absence, and which was beginning to thrive in New York. Woody joined the Almanacs for their summer tour which took them West, doing shows for union meetings. That summer, Woody and Mary also made an official separation.
In the fall, the Almanacs returned to New York and began a communal lifestyle. The group went through various shifts in dynamics and membership. Woody's performances began to be eratic, and his drinking problematic. The Almanacs' success diminished and disappeared when it was discovered that the membership had been Communists, drawing into question the validity of their pro-war, anti-Hitler repertoire.
In January of 1942, Woody met Marjorie Mazia, a Martha Graham dancer, who was to become his second wife. Woody was performing for an experimental dance, Folksay. Marjorie helped Woody get through difficult rehearsals, taking on what was to be her role as the supportive and organizing agent in the rest of Woody's life.
In the next year or so, Woody worked on and finished his autobiography, for which he had received a contract. He began working again with the rejuvenated Almanacs, and played a roll in a staged revue called Its All Yours, celebrating the authenticity of folk music. During this period, Marjorie also found herself pregnant with their first child. Marjorie was married when she and Woody met, and she had not yet been divorced. She felt that for the sake of the child, it would be best for her to return home to her husband and to security, with the intent of returning to Woody after the child was born. Needless to say, this was not easy on Woody (nor Marjorie). This, and increased self-pitying and insecurity, perhaps the effects of Huntington's Chorea, made for a tumultuous exchange of letters between the two, as did Marjorie's second thoughts about returning to Woody. But Marjorie did return with their daughter, Cathy.
Between 1943 and 1945, Woody's life was a rather erratic batch of activity. He entered the Merchant Marines three times with his friend and sometime singing partner, Cisco Houston. It seemed the best way to avoid being drafted by the Army. He escaped death by torpedo more than once, to return to Marjorie and Cathy in New York, and to various creative activities. Woody played a part in the Lomaxes folk opera, The Martins and the Coys, and recorded with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Cisco Houston, and Bess Lomax, in Moses Asch's New York studio. He toured with Will Geer's "Roosevelt Bandwagon" in benefit to the president, had his own weekly, fifteen minute radio show on WNEW, and made various attempts at other writing projects.
Despite his service in the Marines, the Army drafted Woody in March of 1945, at the age of 32, just two months before Germany surrendered. This separation from his family was particularly difficult. Woody married Marjorie on a leave of absence in November, and was discharged the next month.
1946 found Woody finally at home in Coney Island with Marjorie and Cathy. Woody wrote many songs inspired by Cathy, which he recorded with Moses Asch. He also began writing more songs inspired directly from daily newspaper headlines. The old Almanac members and other folk artists formed an organization called People's Songs, meant to write and publish songs for "the people" in their own periodical. The organization was not as strict in its politics which allowed for more comfort and a more inclusive membership. However, the change in membership quantity had its counterpart in a change of quality, as the idea that the songs were for everyone could be translated into the idea that anyone could perform them. Yet, with the post-war peace, People's Songs, and Communism in general seemed outmoded. Such changes, including the loss of his favorite union audiences, frustrated Woody and made for more erratic performances.
In 1947 Cathy suddenly died in a fire in the Coney Island apartment, caused by faulty electric wiring. Later that year, Marjorie gave birth to their first son, Arlo.
The left was more on the way out than ever, and Woody as dedicated to it as ever. He became dissatisfied with People's Songs as it waned with the political left. He wrote a novel Seeds of Man, but couldn't find a publisher.
The effects of Huntington's Chorea increased, and Woody's presence was increasingly difficult for his family. From 1949 to 1952, Woody traveled around, at first with Marjorie's encouragement, and then at her insistence. Woody became dangerous at times, forcing Marjorie to call the police. He checked himself into a hospital in May, for alcoholism, which he was trying to convince himself and Marjorie was his only problem. In July, he was transferred to Brooklyn State Hospital where he was diagnosed with Huntington's.
In September he was released and quickly made his way out West once more. He lived on The Geers' property in California where he met Anneke Marshall, 20 years his junior, who was to be his third wife. She was married to an actor and aspiring writer when they met, but in a short time Woody had moved in with the couple, and then he and Anneke ran away together. For a time they lived in Florida, where Woody injured his arm in yet another accidental fire. They moved back to California and to New York where they had a daughter. Woody continued to write, and in the summer of 1954 traveled the country one last time. Then in September of 1954, he checked himself back into Brooklyn State Hospital. Woody was mostly in and occasionally out of various hospitals for the rest of his life. Anneke left Woody in 1956, but he had other visitors including Marjorie, friends from the folk music world, and a growing population of adoring fans.
One such fan was Bob Dylan, who in the first years of the sixties was emulating Woody almost religiously. As Woody lost more and more control over his mind and body, the world of folk music was on the up and up. From the mid to late fifties and on into the sixties, a new interest in folk music came about. People were finally playing some of Woody's songs to a popular audience. Dylan is representative of the urban folk revival and is considered by many to have inherited Woody's legacy, and to have brought folk music into the realm of popular music. To others, including Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, Dylan's move from acoustic to electric and other innovations was nothing less than a betrayal and bastardization of the folk genre.
In 1967, after fifteen years in the hospital contending with Huntington's Disease, Woody died.