Woody Guthrie - Biography

In a 1943 review of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography in The New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman wrote presciently, “Someday people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off of the strings of his music box are a national possession, like Yellowstone and Yosemite.”


Woody Guthrie was, without question, the most important figure in the 20th century American folk movement. Though Guthrie was active in the studio and on radio for little more than a decade before health issues ended his career, the prolific singer and songwriter virtually defined the profile of the socially conscious musician. He served as a role model for generations of important musicians: He personally mentored Pete Seeger, inspired Bob Dylan as a writer and performer, sparked some of Bruce Springsteen’s most powerful music, and spurred the Clash’s Joe Strummer to call himself “Woody Mellor” early in his career.


Reflecting Guthrie’s hard-nosed commitment to social justice and spawned by the leftist political and artistic ferment of the ‘40s, Guthrie’s song catalog contains some American classics. His compositions included “This Land is Your Land” (today virtually a second National Anthem), “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Oklahoma Hills,” “Philadelphia Lawyer,” “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On,” and “Do Re Mi.” His first album Dust Bowl Ballads belongs on any short list of classic recordings.


Beyond his profile as a writer and performer, Guthrie crystallized the romantic image of the folk performer. Very much a self-created figure, he epitomized the rambling, wry man of the people, standing at the side of the road with his thumb out and a guitar strapped across his back. His highly romanticized and widely praised 1943 autobiography Bound For Glory was essential to the public’s apprehension of Guthrie as a feisty, peripatetic little guy who spoke for the common man.


Woody Guthrie was no virtuoso. His guitar picking and harmonica blowing was relatively primitive. As a writer, he’d as soon borrow a familiar melody from a traditional ballad or an old Carter Family recording as pen a new one himself. Yet his music continues to communicate universally today — thanks to its simplicity, its directness, and its heart.


He was born on July 14, 1912 — Bastille Day, the French holiday commemorating revolution — in Okemah, Oklahoma; the third child of Charley and Nora Guthrie, he was named Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, after the man who had just been nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate. His father was an unsuccessful Democratic political functionary and real estate saleman. His mother’s odd behavior, ranging from distraction to violent anger, attracted the neighbors’ attention.


Tragedy dogged the family early. In May 1919, Woody’s older sister Clara set herself afire after a violent verbal confrontation with her mother; burned from neck to knees, she died. Woody would later obscure the truth about this incident and other incidents of his youth. 


He was taken with music at an early age. Never an enthusiastic or devoted student — but nonetheless an autodidact who read virtually any book he could get his hands on — Woody was impressed by a local shoeshine boy who also played harmonica, and took up the instrument after hoarding his pennies and nickels to buy one. He attended the medicine shows that passed through Okemah, and learned to “play the bones.” He listened deeply to the radio. And he began performing at school.


The health of Guthrie’s mother took a turn for the worse when he was in his early teens, and his father packed a younger sister, Mary Jo, off to live with relatives when it became obvious that Nora couldn’t take care of her. Catastrophe struck in June 1927, when Nora Guthrie splashed her husband with kerosene and set him on fire. Seriously burned, Charley Guthrie moved to Texas to recover with relatives; his wife was committed to the state hospital for the insane, where she would die three years later. 


In his mid-teens, Woody fended for himself in Oklahoma for a couple of years, entertaining on the Okemah streets at times, and then rejoined his father in the town of Pampa, Texas, in 1929. In that oil boom town of 22,000, he began performing with his uncle Jeff Guthrie and his wife Allene, and took up the guitar. He dropped out of high school and immersed himself more deeply in music. With his family group the Corncob Trio he made local radio appearances. He assumed a comedic character, much styled after the contemporary radio humorist Will Rogers.


In October 1933, at the age of 22, Guthrie married the first of his three wives, Mary Jennings, the sister of one of his friends and sometime bandmate. With the oil boom over, Guthrie struggled to get by in Pampa. In April 1935, the city was buried in a massive dust storm — the product of a long drought in the plains and the Southwest — which blackened the Texas skies all Easter; the event would leave a deep impression on the still-budding musician. 


In 1937 — after legitimate work opportunities had dried up, leaving Guthrie to work as a sometime fortune teller and faith healer — Woody decided to leave his family behind and hit the road for California in search of a living. Hopping freights and hitching rides, he ended up in Sacramento, where he hooked up with his cousin Jack Guthrie, a smooth cowboy singer. The two musicians relocated to Los Angeles, where they began rehearsing with another vocalist, Maxine Crissman, the sister of a construction worker Jack knew; the Missouri-born Crissman would be dubbed “Lefty Lou from Ol’ Mizzou” by Woody.


In July 1937, the Guthries and Crissman landed a local daily radio show on the left-leaning station KFVD. The show became a popular item, as LA’s large complement of “Okies” — ex-Oklahomans who had fled their economically depressed state in search of work in sunny California — identified deeply with the good-humored, outspoken Woody Guthrie. Cousin Jack soon exited the act, leaving Woody to develop routines that were long on cornball humor and sly downhome political philosophizing. He also began writing some of the songs that made him famous: “Do Re Mi” (a droll commentary on how rough life was in California for the penniless), “Philadelphia Lawyer” (a modern murder ballad later popularized by the Maddox Brothers and Rose), and the nostalgic “Oklahoma Hills” (which Jack Guthrie would take onto the hillbilly charts).


In 1938, the KFVD show was suspended when Maxine Crissman complained of fatigue brought on by anemia. Guthrie accepted the offer of the station’s manager to ramble around California and contribute stories to a left-wing paper he was publishing. His travels around the state and into neighboring Nevada brought him into close contact with striking laborers, vigilante justice, and migrant workers, deepening the social purpose of his music.


Back in LA, Guthrie’s radio show struggled without Crissman. He scuffled to support his wife Mary, who would soon give birth to their third child. He played for nickels in Skid Row bars, and fell in with left-leaning figures like Ed Robbin, reporter for the Communist party paper The People’s Daily World, and actor-musician Will Geer. He wrote increasingly politicized songs like “Pretty Boy Floyd,” an homage to the banker-hating Midwestern outlaw, and “Dustbowl Refugee.” In 1939, he began contributing a folksy column, “Woody Sez,” to the World. He contributed a song to John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s bestselling Okie epic The Grapes of Wrath; the novel and movie would inspire angry new Guthrie songs like “Vigilante Man” and “Tom Joad.”


After dragging his wife and three children back to Texas, Guthrie quickly set out for New York; he had been summoned there by Geer, then starring on Broadway in Tobacco Road. After an arduous journey east in early 1940, Guthrie quickly became the toast of New York’s privileged leftist community; his column “Woody Sez” was soon picked up by the American Communist Party’s newspaper The Daily Worker.


Not long after his arrival, he wrote one of his best-known songs, which wouldn’t be recorded until 1944. Inspired by Kate Smith’s ubiquitous and aggravating hit version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Guthrie’s hymn to the America he knew — sung to the tune of the Carter Family’s “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” — would first be known as “God Blessed America For Me,” and later as “This Land is Your Land.”


The left wing’s Popular Front had adopted traditional folk music as its music of the hour. Guthrie’s public appearances at leftist functions aroused the interest of Alan Lomax, the politically sympathetic host of a CBS Radio folk music show and head of the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song. Guthrie guested on Lomax’s program American School of the Air, and in March 1940 he began recording hours of songs and reminiscences for the Library of Congress. At Lomax’s insistence, he also began writing an autobiography.


The archivist also convinced RCA Victor Records, which had approached him about recording an album, that Guthrie was the poet of the dust bowl. The label, seeking to capitalize on the huge popularity of the book and film The Grapes of Wrath, recorded two 78 rpm albums of themed material. The Dust Bowl Ballads collections included many of the singer-songwriter’s greatest compositions — “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Dusty Old Dust” (also known as “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You”), “Do Re Mi,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and “Vigilante Man,” as well as “Tom Joad,” a two-part number inspired by Steinbeck’s work. The albums did not sell impressively, and they were the only major-label releases ever from Guthrie. But they established him at the forefront of the modern folk movement.


Asked by Lomax to write introductions for an anthology of American folk songs he was compiling, Guthrie was thrust together with the book’s music editor, Peter Seeger. Son of a folklorist and stepson of a musician, Pete Seeger was a Harvard dropout and aspiring banjo player then working as Lomax’s archival assistant. In late 1940, Guthrie took Seeger on a rambling road trip through the South and West, where they played for union organizers.


Back in New York, Guthrie sang at leftist functions with the black blues-folk singer (and Lomax discovery) Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and with actor-singer Gilbert “Cisco” Houston, who would become his musical sidekick. But he didn’t stay long: After petulantly dropping a radio show and dragging his wearying family back west, Guthrie found himself in Portland, Oregon, writing music for a documentary film being made by the Department of the Interior’s Bonneville Power Administration about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. The movie would not see completion until 1949, but Guthrie produced some of his most memorable songs for the project, including “Grand Coulee Dam” and “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”


Guthrie’s marriage essentially collapsed for good at this point, but he hardly paid the situation any mind. He returned to New York to join the Almanac Singers, a new political folk group organized by Pete Seeger. The core of the group, which would shift constantly over the years, was Seeger, Guthrie, actor-singer Millard Lampell, and Arkansas-born vocalist Lee Hays. The group released albums on the small independent Almanac and General labels. The group’s material included a memorable Guthrie song, “Reuben James,” about an American destroyer sunk in the North Atlantic while protecting a British convoy.


The Almanacs’ songs were embraced by the East Coast left, swept up in anti-Nazi fervor following the sundering of the Soviet Union’s pact with Germany. (It was probably around this time that Guthrie’s guitar began bearing the famous hand-lettered legend, “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.”) The group veered across the country on a chaotic 1941 US tour of Communist and labor union functions; by its end, Seeger and Guthrie were fulfilling their dates alone.


Nonetheless, the haphazard group maintained an audience with its stridently anti-Axis songs in the wake of America’s entry into World War II. The Almanacs were heard by an audience of 30 million on a February 1942 four-network broadcast of Norman Corwin’s show We the People. However, within days, a newspaper story linking the group to Communist causes brought their career to a screeching halt. (History repeated itself in the ‘50s when Seeger and Hays’ popular quartet the Weavers was blacklisted.)


Several new chapters in Guthrie’s life — some of them literal chapters — opened in 1942. He met Marjorie Mazia, a married dancer in Martha Graham’s company, beginning a relationship that would continue until the end of his life. He continued work on his autobiography with the help of his friends William and Joy Doerflinger, who helped whittle away three-quarters of the sprawling manuscript. Illustrated by Woody himself, the book, Bound For Glory, appeared in the spring of 1943, not long after Marjorie Mazia gave birth to Cathy Guthrie. It was positively received, and helped build its author’s already considerable myth.


In mid-1943, Guthrie’s draft notice finally arrived. He opted for merchant marine service with his friend Cisco Houston; their three tours of duty would climax in near-disaster, when their ship the Sea Porpoise hit a mine near the Normandy coast just after D-Day in 1944. 


Beginning that year and continuing through 1949, Guthrie, with Houston as a frequent duet partner, recorded prolifically for New York recording engineer and label entrepreneur Moses Asch. Guthrie cut literally hundreds of selections — from traditional English and American ballads and songs to his own compositions — for Asch over the course of their association. These songs would be the backbone of the musician’s recorded legacy; much of the material was re-released from the ‘50s on by Asch’s most famous imprint, Folkways, and, after the company’s acquisition by the Smithsonian Institute, by Smithsonian Folkways on CD.


Barred from the merchant marine due to his Communist associations, Guthrie was drafted and sent into the Army Air Force on V-E Day in 1945. With both his and Marjorie’s divorces now final, he married her while on furlough that December. He emerged from the service in early 1946 and promptly joined People’s Songs, a new organization founded by Seeger and Hays devoted to the creation of progressive music.


At around the same time, he began writing new songs to entertain his little daughter Cathy and her friends; these were recorded for Asch’s label, and it is believed that Guthrie’s albums of children’s music — Songs to Grow On and Work Songs to Grow On --represents the bestselling part of his recorded catalog. A 1947 song cycle about the ill-fated leftist martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, created at Asch’s request, was not nearly as successful, either artistically or financially.


Guthrie’s life began to careen in 1947. The year began with a family tragedy that eerily echoed incidents from the musician’s past. On Feb. 9, four-year-old Cathy Guthrie was seriously burned when an electrical cord in the family radio short-circuited and set fire to the Guthries’ apartment on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. She died the next day. Guthrie would father three more children with Marjorie — sons Arlo and Joady and daughter Nora — but they did little to cement a relationship increasingly frayed by Guthrie’s wanderlust, infidelity, and drinking. The postwar turmoil of the cold war and deepening government scrutiny of suspected Communists and fellow travelers did not help Guthrie’s career. 


His behavior became erratic. In 1948, while separated from Marjorie, Guthrie sent a series of sexually explicit letters to the younger sister of his former singing partner Maxine Crissman. Charged with a federal crime of mailing obscene literature, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to psychiatric treatment; after he walked away from therapy, Guthrie was sentenced to six months in federal prison, but a lenient judge released him after reducing his sentence to time served.


In 1950, the Weavers’ recording of Guthrie’s “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” became a No. 4 national hit, but it was a dim bright spot in a career and a life that continued to darken. His reputation was still great enough that he could attract acolytes like Elliot Adnopoz, a Brooklyn doctor’s son who styled himself after Guthrie, taking the stage name Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But an audition with Decca Records came to nothing. He began to ramble incessantly around the country, writing increasingly incoherent letters to his now-estranged wife. 


A violent incident between Woody and Marjorie led to his commitment to the detox ward at Kings County Hospital. His family and doctors wrote his problems off as merely the effects of alcoholism. Another incident led to his commitment to Brooklyn State Hospital. He was being prepared for shock treatment in September 1952 when a young doctor on the hospital staff diagnosed Guthrie with Huntington’s chorea, an inherited and incurable degenerative nervous disorder. Guthrie’s mother had clearly been stricken with the same disease, whose symptoms could be associated with mental illness.


Released from the hospital, Guthrie traveled west to California, where he took up residence near his friend Will Geer in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon. He became smitten with Anneke Marshall, a married Pennsylvania-born beauty 20 years his junior. Their whirlwind relationship encompassed the divorce of their respective spouses; a trip to Florida during which Guthrie seriously burned himself; their marriage in October 1953; the birth of a daughter later put up for adoption; a move to New York; and, in the spring of 1954, a violent outburst that led to the couple’s split.


Wandering, arrests, and chaos followed. Finally, on Sept. 16, 1954, Woody Guthrie checked himself into Brooklyn State Hospital again. This time it was essentially for keeps. His last public hurrah came at a tribute show, mounted as a benefit for his family, at New York’s Pythian Hall in March 1956. Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and other old friends performed Guthrie’s music; as the show climaxed with “This Land is Your Land,” the diminutive musician stood to acknowledge the audience’s applause.


After checking out from his voluntary confinement at Brooklyn State and getting arrested almost immediately, Guthrie was committed to New Jersey State Hospital at Greystone Park in May 1956. Diagnosed with “Huntington’s chorea with psychotic reaction,” Woody Guthrie remained confined for the next several years. For a time, he was allowed to live at a couple’s home in nearby East Orange, NJ; it was there in early 1961 that Arlo Guthrie brought a young musician and ardent admirer from Minnesota who called himself Bob Dylan. While Dylan was there, Cisco Houston, who was dying from inoperable stomach cancer, came by to say goodbye to his old shipmate and musical partner.


Though long divorced from him, Marjorie Guthrie was her ex-husband’s primary caretaker during the last years of his life. She was with him when he died on Oct. 3, 1967, at the age of 55; he had been incarcerated in mental hospitals for the last 13 years of his life. Arlo Guthrie threw his father’s ashes into the sea off Coney Island.


Arlo, Dylan, Springsteen — these and thousands more were Woody Guthrie’s musical offspring. His spare, affecting music has endured, and new music has been created posthumously from his unfinished work: Two volumes of Guthrie lyrics in new settings by English folk singer Billy Bragg and the Chicago band Wilco were released to great acclaim in 1998 and 2000. Tribute concerts continue to be regular events. And the odd undiscovered work still materializes: In 2007, the Woody Guthrie Foundation released a previously unheard 1949 concert by Guthrie, painstakingly restored from an antique wire recording.


The music of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie remains profoundly and permanently in the American grain.


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