Sunday, October 5, 2008

Woody Guthrie

If you are a “child of the 60s” you could not have made it through this restless decade without hearing “This Land is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty” or “Bound For Glory.” Every folk singer worth his salt in the 1960s sang these traditional songs of protest, songs Woody Guthrie wrote during a more turbulent era --the economic depression of the 1930s. As a young man growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, Guthrie witnessed some of the best and some of the worst economic conditions in American history. Born in Okemah, Oklahoma July 14, 1912, Guthrie grew up in the 1920s during the oil boom that brought economic prosperity to the region.

But when the oil boom was over, many Oklahomans found themselves unemployed. Woody Guthrie’s family was like many who tried to make a living in the 1920s and 30s. His father, who claimed various occupations from cowboy to land speculator, was one of many who suffered financial ruin. That, along with the tragic death of Woody’s sister in a house fire, and the institutionalization of his mother, informed Woody’s world view; a view he captured in his songs about those who suffered from the economic dislocation.

Woody as a young child on porch with his mom and dad.

Woody's birthplace, picture taken in 1979.

After Woody’s mother’s death in the state hospital at Norman Oklahoma, Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas. A year later, he formed his first band, the Corncob Trio, which officially launched Woody Guthrie as a performer.

Woody stayed in Pampa Texas during the height of the depression, where he started writing songs about the condition of the society around him, songs like “Do Re Mi,” “Bust bowl Blues,” “Dust Pneumony,” “Hard Ain’t it Hard,” and “Oklahoma Hills.” In 1937, Woody, with his wife Mary and their first child Gwendolyn, move to California, where they felt the hatred of all things “Okie.” Regardless, he managed to land a job singing on KFVD radio, where he was well received by station listeners. He played mostly traditional songs and a few of his own works. The medium of Radio also allowed Woody a platform to espouse an often controversial commentary of the country’s social and political conditions. Many who heard him could relate to the truth of his words in such songs as“ Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “Tom Joad,” and “Hard Travlin.”

Unlike many Oklahomans in California, Woody began to prosper. His musical career took him to New York City, where he record “Dust Bowl Ballads” for RCA in 1940. He continued to record his original music through the 1940s for Folkways Records. In 1941, Woody joined Sis Cunningham, (see blog on Sis Cunningham and the Red Dust Players) Pete Seeger, Cisco Huston, Burl Ives, Will Geer, and others at Almanac House in Greenwich Village. Almanac House was a gathering place for the Almanac Singers, and likeminded individuals to hone their songs and political ideology.

Woody with Pete Seeger

During WWII, Guthrie’s hatred of fascism motivated him to join the Merchant Marines and eventually the Army. The songs he wrote during the war years reflected his anti-Hitler, pro-war feelings, they were meant to rally the troops. The most popular was “Sinking of the Reuben James.”

By the end of the 1940s, Woody started displaying the symptoms of Huntington’s Chorea, the disease that caused his mother to be institutionalized, and her eventual death. In the 1940s, however, little was known about the disease and Guthrie’s family and friends only saw erratic and often violent behavior. He was unstable and left his 2nd wife, Marjorie, and his children to wander across the country, he finally landed in California, where he met and married his 3rd wife.

In the 1950s, the United States House on Un-American Activities Committee sought to round up those whom they suspected of communist activities. Many in the entertainment community were on the Committee’s list. Some of the Almanacs and those who started the Weavers (see blog on the Weavers), were on the list, including Woody Guthrie. From California, Woody escaped to Florida, where a friend provided a refuge for those who had been “blacklisted” for their views on unions, equal rights, and freedom of speech. By 1954, after arriving back in New York City, Guthrie’s erratic behavior concerned those around him. With the help of his friends and Marjorie, the 2nd wife, Guthrie was hospitalized, where in died in 1967. During his lifetime, he wrote over 3000 songs.

Woody with 2nd wife Marjorie

At the time of Woody’s hospitalization in the mid-nineteen fifties, a new folk culture was beginning. Many who were just starting their careers as folk singers, found New York City the center of progressive thought, which inspired their music. When in the City, they visited with Woody in the hospital. He was in many ways a mentor to a new generation of songwriters lead by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Och, and many others who chronicled in song the social, economic and political environment of the mid-twentieth century America.

Woody Guthrie meant different things to different people. Although the idealists of the 1960s considered him a “fellow traveler,” he adhered to neither socialism nor communism. For example, he volunteered for the army; something a true socialist would not do because they were largely pacifists. To them, war was a distraction from obtaining socialist goals. But Guthrie understood socialist sympathies and promoted through his songs many socialist solutions. To him, if one ideology helped the people and another didn’t, then go with the one that did the most for the common good. The long-term effects of a socialist economy vs. a capitalist economy were not important to him. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the new folksinger little understood the roots of Woody Guthrie’s ideology, which was born out of a hardscrabble life in Oklahoma. But, it did not matter. For the 60s generation, Woody Guthrie was the troubadour they all aspired to be; and he kept the lantern lighted for a new generation of songsters.

Here is Woody singing "So long It's Been Good To Know Ya"