Woody Guthrie: America’s True Folk Balladeer

Woody Guthrie lived a hard life, wandering around the country and writing songs about everything he saw. He spoke as a common man, speaking for the common person. His life was filled with personal tragedy and loss; however, his songs were filled with hope and optimism. Throughout his life, he was always moving on from place to place. He never stayed in one place for too long. In his short life, he wrote more than a thousand songs, many of which have become legendary folk songs, focusing on hard times and the beauty of this land.

Woody’s Early Years and Musical Beginnings

Woody was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. His father, Charley, named him in honor of the newly elected Democratic Presidential nominee, Woodrow Wilson. The family was a very musical one, and at a young age, Guthrie realized that he could make up songs easily. However, by the time he was fourteen, his family had fallen apart, so he decided to leave home. His mother, Nora, was sent to the state mental asylum; she was later diagnosed to have Huntington’s Disease; his older sister, Clara, had died in a mysterious fire, and his father was broke and crippled. After leaving Okemah, he traveled around playing the harmonica wherever he could. He finally ended up in Pampa, Texas, where he started a band called The Corncob Trio with his good friends Matt Jennings and Clive “Cluster” Baker. They would play anywhere around town, singing “feel-good songs and humorous songs, (Arkush). As Guthrie said later in life, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose” (Arkush). By 1933, he married Matt Jennings’ sister, Mary, who was five years younger than he was. They lived near Pampa in “the ricketiest of the oil town shacks” (Hampton 100). Woody and Mary had three children, Bill, Gwen, and Sue. But in 1935, the dust storms came and destroyed their farm. Having nothing left, he decided to leave his family and moved to California to pursue his music career.

Woody’s Big Break

After Pampa, Guthrie traveled around working odd jobs. In the mid-1930s, he finally ended up in California, where, along with Maxine Crissman, he had a radio show on KFVD. Known as “The Woody and Lefty Lou Show,” it gave him a chance to sing his songs to a wide audience, many of whom were immigrants from Oklahoma. At this time, Woody published his first book, Woody and Lefty Lou’s Favorite Collection of Old Time Hill Country Songs. It was at this time that Woody developed his “easy-talking, friendly style” (Hampton 101). In 1938, station owner J. Frank Burke, who was also involved in liberal politics, gave Ed Robbin, a columnist for the People’s World, a communist newspaper, a radio show following Woody’s.

Oftentimes, Woody stayed and listened to Robbin’s show, and soon a friendship was formed. This is how Woody first became interested in California’s left-wing politics. Robbin helped Woody book performances at political functions. In May 1939, Woody began to write for the People’s World. His column, entitled “Woody Sez,” was a “Will Rogers-style daily commentary” (Hampton 104). So, was Guthrie a communist? He once proclaimed, “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life” (Arkush).

New York

In January 1940, Guthrie arrived in New York City. By this time, he had a repertoire of traditional and original songs. He already had a name for himself on the West Coast, but now he was about to make one for himself on the east coast. It was in New York, on February 23, 1940, that he wrote his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land.” While in the city, Woody stayed with many different friends and acquaintances. For a short time, he stayed with Will and Hereta Geer until they asked him to leave. After leaving the Geer’s apartment, he spent some time with another folk singer, Burl Ives (Hampton —). However, it was through Will Geer that Woody became active in New York’s left-wing politics. On March 3, 1940, Will Geer asked Woody to sing at the “Grapes of Wrath Evening.” It was here that Woody made an impression in the minds of so many people. However, the most important was folk song collector Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax, along with his father, John, had traveled throughout the United States collecting folk songs. When he first met Guthrie, Lomax knew that he had to record him and his repertoire of songs.

The Library of Congress Recordings

Shortly after, Guthrie and Lomax traveled to Washington, D.C., to make a series of recordings. The idea was for Alan to interview Woody, and then Woody would play songs in between. Although they were not commercially released until 1960, The Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder CD 1041) proved to be a historic landmark in that they were the first recording sessions for Woody Guthrie. As a result of his working with Alan Lomax, Woody was offered more chances to appear on radio shows, and he was given a chance to record some of his songs for Victor Records. On May 3, 1940, Woody recorded his entire Dust Bowl Ballads album (Folkways FH5212), containing twelve 78-rpm records. For this work, Woody was paid the unheard-of sum of $300. His next project was to co-write a book with Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger. It was finally published in 1962, and it was entitled “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People.”

As a result of his newly acquired money, Guthrie decided to visit Mary and his two children. So, he bought a Plymouth automobile and drove to Oklahoma. Accompanied by Pete Seeger, the two of them set out through Appalachia and Tennessee. They made several stops along the way; the most important was at the Highlander Folk School. After a short visit, they once again continued their drive. Once they arrived in Oklahoma, Woody visited his brother, father, and sister in Konawa. Soon afterward, he and Pete drove to Oklahoma City to visit with Communist Party organizers Bob and Ina Wood (Klein 160-161). After briefly visiting with his wife and children, he headed back to New York. Before doing so, he donated his Plymouth automobile to the Communist Party in Oklahoma City.

Once back in New York, He and Pete Seeger began playing around various clubs and political functions in the city. He would play with other important folk legends such as Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, and Burl Ives. It was at this time that Woody also met his long-time traveling and singing companion Cisco Houston. Woody continued his commercial radio appearances, but he soon grew tired of them. By the end of 1940, it was time for him to move once again.

The Bonneville Power Administration

After spending the majority of 1940 in New York, Woody needed a change of pace. After a short time on the road, he ended up in Oregon and began to work for the Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA was created under Franklin Roosevelt to provide public power to the citizens of Portland and nearby towns. Woody was hired to write songs about their construction of dams along the Columbia River. The songs were to accompany a film that was to be produced. In all, he wrote twenty-six songs, recording seventeen of them for the department of the interior. However, money for the project was running low, and eventually, the idea of producing a film was forgotten. So, once again, it was time for Woody to move on.

The Almanac Singers, New York City, and World War II

After leaving Oregon, Woody returned to New York to perform with The Almanac Singers. Formed in December 1940, when Pete Seeger and Lee Hays began to the city playing labor and peace songs. Woody played with The Almanac Singers during the summer of 1941 and into 1942. He moved into the almanac house and Greenwich Village. Together with The Almanac Singers, Woody began to write songs against Hitler and fascism. For some time, Woody had a bumper sticker on his guitar that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” In the winter of 1942, Woody wrote one of his most famous wartime songs, “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” In the original version of the song, Woody went through and named all of the people killed. However, the final version was greatly abridged.

Woody, along with Cisco Houston, enrolled in the Merchant Marine in hopes of avoiding the army. Woody served three different times; each time, his ship was torpedoed, so he was able to return home. While in the merchant marines, Woody met Jim Longhi, who would become a close friend of Woody’s. In 1997, Longhi published a book entitled Woody, Cisco, and Me. In 1944, Woody was drafted into the army but was discharged on VE day. He never saw action in the army.

In the winter of 1942, Woody had fallen in love again. This time with dancer Majorie Greenblatt. He settled his marriage with Mary, and in November 1945, Majorie gave birth to Woody’s third child, Cathy Ann. Cathy was very special to Woody, and she was the subject of a number of children’s songs. However, once again, tragedy struck in Woody’s life. In 1946, an electrical fire broke out in his New York apartment, killing Cathy. Woody would never overcome this event.

Moses Asch and Folkways Records

Moses Asch was born in Warsaw, Poland, and “was a man obsessed with sounds-musical sounds, cultural sounds, political sounds, and nature’s sounds” (This Land is Your Land 1). In 1939, Asch started to release his first recordings under the company name Asch Records. During World War II, Asch teamed up with Herbert Harris, who had a record company named Stinson Records and, more importantly, access to shellac, an important material used in the making of records. However, soon their relationship fell apart, and as a result, Moses Asch and Marian Distler started Folkways Records in 1948. Their sole purpose was to record music and sounds, regardless of what it was. Asch’s philosophy was to keep the music available to the public at all times, so as a result, Asch kept over 2,200 recordings in circulation during his over forty-year career at Folkways Records. Many different folk artists, such as Josh White, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie, recorded for Asch. It was here that Woody did most of his recording.

Woody first met Moses Asch in March 1944 while on a break from the Merchant Marines. Starting in April 1944, Woody began to record for Asch. Sometimes accompanied by friends, Woody recorded several hundred songs that Acsh could pick from as he made albums. Woody and Moses Asch had a unique relationship. Woody would stop by at various times after the initial recording sessions to record for Asch. Most of the time, it was when he needed money, so he would record a few songs in return for pay.

Bob Dylan and The 60’s Folk Revival

As Woody lay dying in Greystone Hospital, his songs were becoming popular in the ever-changing times. By 1960, a young Minnesota folk singer named Robert Allen Zimmerman showed up at Woody’s bedside. He would later be known as the great Bob Dylan. Young Dylan played songs for his hero and soon memorized dozens of Woody Guthrie’s songs while writing many of his own original songs. Bob Dylan helped spark the Folk revival of the 60s; however, it was Guthrie who had the most influence. Many folk singers of the 1960s were influenced by Guthrie’s style and songwriting.

Works Cited

David J. Arkush. “Life and Times” (Online). November 6, 1997.

Joe Klein. Woody Guthrie A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980).

Woody Guthrie. This Land is Your Land. Smithsonian Folkways, SF CD 40100, 1997.

Wayne Hampton, Guerilla Minstrels (Knoxville: Tne University of Tennessee Press, 1986).

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About Todd DeFeo 1608 Articles
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is the owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and Railfanning.org.