The Life & Times of Woody Guthrie
“This Land is Your Land” isn’t the country’s national anthem, but the 1940 tune by Woody Guthrie still touches many Americans’ hearts – maybe more now than ever. The 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth is this week, a nice time to reflect on times and tunes. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was a skinny, angry but ultimately optimistic singer with an unrefined voice, a sophisticated appreciation for regular people, and a beat-up Martin guitar with a small sign that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
Born in Okemah, Okla., on July 14, 1912, and silenced by physical and psychological ailments by age 42 (he suffered from Huntington’s Disease), Guthrie is considered America's greatest folksinger.
The transformation of a ordinary kid whose dad was a real estate speculator in Oklahoma – where Will Rogers was a favorite son and voters for socialist candidates turned out in force – to a union-backing, Communist-friendly, military-veteran hell-raiser was surprising for a high school dropout who once swapped songs for food.
As covered in Will Kaufman's recent book from the University of Illinois Press, "Woody Guthrie, American Radical," Guthrie in about a decade wrote, sang, drew and lived the nation’s Great Depression story like no one else. He performed in a cowboy band in Texas, followed the Dust Bowl exodus West, and frequented farm camps, union halls and Skid Row taverns. His thousands of songs include “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “(This Train is) Bound for Glory,” “Going Down the Road (Feeling Bad),” “Let’s Go Ridin’ in the Car,” “Union Maid,” "I Ain't Got No Home," and "Vigilante Man."
Such material was the soundtrack to the populist response to the worst economic crisis up to now, and helped define an edgy framework that’s served as the backbone for protest music from the Civil Rights movement to Occupy Wall Street.
Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck described Guthrie as “… just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh-voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
Besides the Illinois book, the state has a few other connections to Guthrie. He wrote and recorded “The Dying Miner” about the 1947 mine disaster in Centralia, which killed 111 people. And after serving in the Merchant Marines, Guthrie was drafted into the Army, which stationed him at Scott Field near Belleville, Ill., in the mid-1940s.
But it was the ’30s, the Dust Bowl of the southern Great Plains, and economic calamity that made him a force. After enduring drought, disappearing topsoil and an onslaught of insolvent mortgages, millions of Americans became economic refugees, heading West. Guthrie went, too. Hitchhiking or riding in freight-train boxcars, he created and shared songs that recorded and expressed the hardships of poverty and injustice. Such songs became a radio show in Texas, and the program a route into a circle of Eastern progressives, eventually landing Guthrie on a government blacklist of suspected Communists, but also bringing him fame as a recording artist, author and visual artist who for a time performed on tour with the esteemed Martha Graham Dancers (with whom his second wife, Marjorie, performed).
He influenced countless songwriters, from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan and Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie. Arlo recently said, “My dad wrote for everybody. Children’s songs… political songs that are current even though they’re 60 years old, songs about deporting illegal migrant workers; there’s a song about Pretty Boy Floyd, who was reported to have paid the mortgages for some farmers. Inequality and injustice still exist. These songs are current in every way and ring true for people of all ages.”
One verse from “This Land is Your Land” seems brooding: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,/ By the relief office I seen my people;/ As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,/ ‘Is this land made for you and me?’ ”
But in “Pastures of Plenty,” Guthrie wrote, “The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is anyway is just a hoping machine.”
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.