Weathered, lean, and kindly, Woody Guthrie's face is the face of American folk music. Born in 1912, this astonishingly prolific composer is to the gritty, acoustic story-song what Louis Armstrong is to jazz and Elvis Presley is to rock & roll — the clearest, deepest source. In the Thirties and Forties he reinvented the American folk ballad as a vehicle for social comment and protest, laying the groundwork for Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bruce Springsteen, John Doe, Joe Strummer, John Mellencamp and numerous other folk and rock singer/songwriters.
He was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. His father was a singer, banjo player, and sometime professional boxer. Woody left home at sixteen and roamed through Texas and Louisiana, working as a newsboy, sign painter, spittoon washer, farm laborer, and at other menial jobs; he also sang in the streets. While visiting his uncle Jeff Guthrie in Pampa, Texas, in 1929, he learned to play guitar. During the Depression, Guthrie rode the rails as a hobo until around 1937, when he settled in L.A. and hosted a radio show on KFVD for a dollar a day.
Guthrie's politics moved leftward, and at the start of World War II he relocated to New York. There he met the Weavers and Pete Seeger. He briefly embraced communism, although he was denied membership in the U.S. Communist party because he refused to renounce his religion, but he did write a column for a communist newspaper, The People's Daily World.
Although these leanings did not endear Guthrie to the U.S. Government, his anti-Hitler songs did; his guitar had a sign on it saying, "This Machine Kills Fascists." From 1943 to 1945 Guthrie was with the U.S. Merchant marine in the U.K., Italy, and Africa. In 1945 he married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, and together they had four children: Cathy (who was killed in a fire at four), Nora, Joady, and Arlo.
For years Guthrie's songs traveled widely, but he didn't record until 1940, when Alan Lomax taped several hours of talking and singing for the Library of Congress. Those sessions were later released on commercial labels including RCA (including 1977's Woody Guthrie—A Legendary Performer and Dust Bowl Ballads) and Elektra. He also recorded with Lead Belly and Sonny Terry, but his recordings had little impact by themselves.
During his years of riding the rails, Guthrie developed a drinking problem. In 1952 he was diagnosed as alcoholic and confined to a mental institution before his problem was correctly diagnosed as Huntington's chorea, a genetically transmitted degenerative disorder of the nervous system from which Guthrie's mother had died. The disease kept him largely inactive and hospitalized during the last decade of his life.
Guthrie's fame has steadily increased over the years. Bob Dylan, who visited with Guthrie in the hospital, sang his idol's praises early on, and Guthrie's son, Arlo, and granddaughter, Sarah Lee, have also carried on the family name as singer/songwriters. Pete Seeger, whose relationship with Woody dates back to the Thirties, organized a series of memorial concerts for the singer in the late Sixties. Two of those concerts — one at Carnegie Hall in 1968 and another at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970 — were recorded and released as albums featuring Dylan, Tom Paxton, Baez, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and Country Joe McDonald.
In 1976 Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory (published in 1943), was made into a biopic starring David Carradine as Guthrie. That same year, Guthrie's previously unpublished prose work, Seeds of Man, was published. In 1988 Guthrie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A decade later, Billy Bragg and Wilco introduced a new generation to Guthrie with their collaboration on Mermaid Avenue, vols. 1 and 2. Released in 1998 and 2000, the albums featured new music by Bragg and Wilco set to lyrics Guthrie had written but never put to music to.
Guthrie's songs have been anthologized countless times over the years, some of the important collections coming from the Rounder and Smithsonian Folkways labels. Newly unearthed recordings were still being released well into the first decade of the 2000s, namely Rounder's 54-track My Dusty Road, taken from tapes that had been in someone's basement for sixty years.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.