By The Greater Astoria Historical Society
Iconic folk singer, radio host, author and political activist Woody Guthrie’s songs changed the landscape of American music and influenced generations of performers from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.
Growing up amid the Dust Bowl hardships of 1930s Oklahoma, his youth was beset by personal tragedy, economic setbacks and wandering the country searching for work and an outlet for his artistic expression. Although Huntington’s disease silenced the clear, unmistakable twang of his voice at 55, his works and powerful anti-establishment message are kept alive by folk singers, music festivals and fans across the nation.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla. Named for the New Jersey governor soon to be the 28th president, Guthrie knew relative prosperity as a child, but his father Charley soon became heavily in debt and a fire destroyed their house.
Soon after, mother Nora, suffering from the increasingly debilitating effects of Huntington’s disease, was institutionalized and left her son’s life. Back then, hard times were not lines to a song for Guthrie. Forced to beg for handouts and rely on his siblings for support, Woody hit the road. He lived for a while with his father in Texas and then left behind a young wife to head west with the Okies looking for work as the Great Plains became a hardscrabble, parched desert of swirling dust.
During this time, the future folk icon began to exhibit a natural gift for music, busking in the streets and playing in dance halls when he could. Even after settling in Los Angeles his songs spoke of the bitter Okie experience of loss, injustice and rejection in their search for work and a place to call home.
Guthrie achieved a degree of fame in California as listeners tuned in to his hillbilly and folk music radio shows. Here his songs began to take on a tone of protest for the everyman and the plight of Dust Bowl Oklahomans like him. With the outbreak of World War II, however, station owners no longer wanted left-wing musicians with communist leanings taking up air time, and it was once again time for Guthrie to move on.
This time, the folk singer’s wanderlust took him to New York, where the “Oklahoma Cowboy” found a home in the liberal folk music community. The once-penniless singer’s career quickly gained traction in the Big Apple, and here he wrote his most well-known song, “This Land Is Your Land,” partly as a protest against class inequality.
He soon became fed up with what he saw as the restrictiveness of working in New York and again cris-crossed the country, this time ending up in the Pacific Northwest. Here he entered a prolific songwriting period, writing “Roll on Columbia,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Grand Coulee Dam,” three of his most famous tunes.
Guthrie soon returned to New York City, where he teamed up with Pete Seeger to form a folk protest music group called the Almanac Singers, which regularly held “hootenanny” concerts around the city. Even during wartime, Guthrie did not hang up his guitar, labeled “this machine kills fascists,” but brought it with him to entertain shipmates and troops serving in Europe during a stint in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
He remarried after settling in Brooklyn after the war, but the famous singer’s behavior soon became erratic and frightening. In 1952, he was diagnosed with the dreaded Huntington’s disease that claimed his mother so many years before.
As if in a frantic escape, he once again shiftlessly began wandering the country, staying in California and Florida for a time, divorcing and briefly remarrying, before returning to New York where his second wife cared for him in rapidly declining health.
No longer able to control his body that once belted out songs of protest with instrumental accompaniment, Guthrie died in Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village in 1967.
After his passing, a new generation of folk singers took up Guthrie’s torch of protest and were fundamentally influenced by his style. From Bob Dylan and Richie Havens to his own son Arlo and John Mellencamp, new generations emerged as the voice of the voiceless.