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Saturday, 29 November 2008 21:01

Woody Guthrie with guitar labeled

Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie

Born: July 14, 1912

Died: October 3, 1967

Age: 55

Cause of death: Huntingdons disease

Notable because: An icon of American activism.


Woody Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter and folk musician. Guthrie's musical legacy consists of hundreds of songs, ballads and improvised works covering topics from political themes to traditional songs to children's songs. Guthrie performed continually throughout his life with his guitar frequently displaying the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists". Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song "This Land Is Your Land", which is regularly sung in American schools. Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress.

http://www.peacebuttons.info/E-News/images/WoodyGuthrie.jpgGuthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues songs. His songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression and he is known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." Guthrie was associated with, but never a member of, Communist groups in the United States throughout his life.

Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. He is the grandfather of musician Sarah Lee Guthrie. Guthrie died from complications of the degenerative neurologic affliction known as Huntington's Disease. In spite of his illness, during his later years Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and to a lesser extent Bob Dylan.


Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma to Nora Belle Sherman and Charles Edward Guthrie. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey, the Democratic candidate who was soon to be elected President of the United States. Charles Guthrie, known as Charley, was an industrious businessman, owning at one time up to 30 plots of land in Okfuskee county. Charley was also actively involved in Oklahoma politics and was a Democratic candidate for office in the county. The young Guthrie would often accompany his father when Charley made stump speeches in the area.Woody Guthrie

Guthrie's early family life included several tragic fires which caused the loss of their home in Okemah. His sister Clara died in an accidental coal oil fire when Guthrie was seven, and Guthrie's father was severely burned in a later coal oil fire. The circumstances of these fires, especially Charley's accident, remain unclear. It is not known whether they were in fact accidents or the result of actions by Guthrie's mother who, unknown to the Guthries at the time, was suffering from a degenerative neurological disease. Nora Guthrie was eventually committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, where she died in 1930. It is believed she was a victim of Huntington's Disease, which would later be the cause of her son's death. It is also suspected that Guthrie's maternal grandfather, George Sherman, suffered from the disease, due to circumstances surrounding his drowning death.

With Nora Guthrie institutionalized and Charley Guthrie living in Pampa, Texas working to repay his debts from unsuccessful real estate deals, Woody Guthrie and his siblings were on their own in Oklahoma and relied on their eldest brother, Roy Guthrie, for support. The fourteen year old Guthrie worked odd jobs around Okemah, bumming meals, and sometimes sleeping at the homes of family friends. According to one story, Guthrie made friends with an African-American blues harmonica player named "George", whom he would watch play at the man's shoe shine booth. Before long Guthrie bought his own harmonica and began playing along. But in another interview 14 years later, Guthrie claimed that he learned how to play harmonica from a boyhood friend, John Woods, and that his earlier story was false. He seemed to have a natural affinity for music and easily learned to "play by ear". He began to use his musical skills around town, playing a song for a sandwich or coins. Guthrie easily learned old Irish ballads and traditional songs from the parents of friends. Although Guthrie did not excel as a student—he dropped out of high school in his fourth year and did not graduate—his teachers described him as bright. He was also an avid reader and read books on a wide range of topics. Friends remember him reading constantly.

Eventually, Guthrie's father sent for his son to come to Texas where little would change for the now-aspiring musician. Guthrie, 18 years old, was reluctant to attend high school classes in Pampa and spent a lot of time learning songs by busking on the streets and reading at the library. He was growing as a musician, gaining practice by regularly playing at dances for his cousin Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle player. In addition, Guthrie spent much time at the library in Pampa's city hall and wrote a manuscript summarizing everything he had read on the basics of psychology. A librarian in Pampa shelved this manuscript under Guthrie's name, but it was later lost in a library reorganization.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 15:53

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