Woody Guthrie (1912- 1967) was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, OK. His father was a land speculator whose fortunes fluctuated with the oil booms. Guthrie's family experienced a series of hardships that tied Woody's sympathies with the poor and downtrodden. His family lost several homes and fortunes to fires; his older sister Clara died in a fire, and his father was severely injured and put out of work by another one. Woody's mother suffered a number of breakdowns before the family was forced to send her to a asylum where she would spend the rest of her life. Woody always claimed that his family was responsible for all the traits that he for which he became legendary. His father was fighter, who never stopped working, dreaming, or fighting despite all his setbacks, and his mother taught him the songs that he would sing, adapt, or borrow.
Around 1923 when his mother was sent away, Woody's father left for west Texas and another oil boom. Woody remained in Oklahoma with his brother but soon set off on his own. In Bound for Glory, he wrote that
"I was thirteen when I went to live with a family of thirteen people in a two room house. I was going on fifteen when I got me a job shining shoes, washing spittoons, meeting the night trains in a hotel uptown. I was a little past sixteen when I first hit the highway and took a trip down around the Gulf of Mexico, hoeing figs, watering strawberries, picking mustang grapes, helping carpenters and well drillers, cleaning yards, chopping weeds, and moving garbage cans."
In 1926 after returning briefly to Okemah, Woody set out for Pampa, TX to join his father. There he began painting signs, but an uncle bought him a guitar and taught him to play.
"And there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about. . . . I never did make up any songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky, but at first it was funny songs or songs about what all's wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in the country was thinking. And this has held me ever since."
Hear Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd"
During the 1930s, Woody set off hitch-hiking and riding the rails through the West on his way to California. In 1938, Woody arrived in Redding, CA to work on the Kenneth Dam; the order never came, and he set off traveling again. He got a daily radio show on KFVD, a progressive radio station in L.A. In 1939 he moved to NYC; a friend introduced him to Alan Lomax who put him on his CBS "Folk School on the Air" show. Lomax recorded Woody's songs and stories for the Archive of Folk Songs at the Library of Congress; Lomax also recommended Woody to an executive at RCA Victor who was looking for someone to record. In 1940, Woody recorded and RCA released Woody's "dust bowl ballads"- including "I Ain't Got No Home," "Tom Joad," and "So Long It's Been Good to Know Ya." In 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration invited Woody to Portland, OR to record songs for an upcoming documentary The Columbia, which was not released until 1949. The BPA sponsored some of Woody's most famous songs- "Roll on Columbia," "Pastures of Plenty," and "Grand Coulee Dam."
Hear "Grand Coulee Dam"
"I hit the road again and crossed the continent twice by way of highway and freights. Folks heard me on the nationwide radio programs CBS and NBC, and thought I was rich and famous, and I didn't have a nickel to my name, when I was hitting the hard way again."
In Bound for Glory, Woody also chronicled his experience auditioning for the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center; he walked out as the entertainment directors tried to decide whether they should costume him as a "Louisiana swamp dweller" or as a "Pierrot"- important in his rejection of the creation of country music during this time and his eventual classification as a folk artist outside the country music industry.
In 1943, Woody, with Cisco Huston, enlisted in the merchant marine, joining the war effort and continuing his travels. Woody wrote two books and continued to sing and record, with the Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, and other, until he was hospitalized in 1954 with Huntington's Disease.
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