Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma – an uproarious oil town – on 14 July 1912. His father Charley was a Democrat politico and a Ku Klux Klan supporter.
His father’s sour property deals impoverished them, and when Woody was seven his beloved elder sister Clara died in a fire. By then, his mother Nora was showing signs of mental illness – depression and strange muscular spasms – which dragged her down until the day in June 1927 when she poured paraffin over Charley while he slept and set fire to him.
By then, his mother Nora was showing signs of mental illness – depression and strange muscular spasms – which dragged her down until the day in June 1927 when she poured paraffin over Charley while he slept and set fire to him.
She was committed to the State Hospital For The Insane, Charley went to convalesce at his sister’s in Groom, Texas (Woody’s younger siblings Mary Jo and George were already there), but Woody and his older brother Roy were left in Oklahoma.
Roy got a steady job in a grocery store. Woody shined shoes, collected empty bottles for the refund and scrap metal to sell. He went to school occasionally, learnt harmonica from a (black) fellow shoeshiner, begged meals and slept on the street.
At 17 he rejoined the family in Pampa, Texas. He scraped a living by janitoring at his father’s cothouse (oil workers rented beds in three shifts around the clock) and selling Prohibition hooch at the drugstore – with a little faith-healing on the side.
Woody loved the music on the new radio stations in Pampa and Amarillo – mainly Western Swing – and from his teens onwards, encouraged by Charley’s ace fiddler brother Jeff, he learned the rudiments of guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, even drums.
He started a group called The Corncob Trio and, in October 1933, he married bandmate Matt Jennings’s 17-year-old sister, Mary. In the summer of 1936 he took off, despite Mary’s first pregnancy.
First time out, looking for a job, he hitched 600 miles to Houston. He found nothing there so continued on to Kilgore, 180 miles to the north. There he slept in his first “hobo jungle” of tents and lean-tos by the railroad track.
He returned to Pampa for the birth of his first daughter, Gwendolyn, in November. But between March 1937 and September 1941 he embarked on seven more journeys around America. At first, he hitched and rode freight trains in California. He wandered through rich plantations of peaches, oranges, walnuts, and grapes. He stole fruit, fished streams and trapped rabbits.
He slept under bridges and in ditches except when the migrant workers put him up for the night in their “Hooterville” shanties. He learned how Agribusinessmen had lured them with lies and driven down pay to a pittance.
Soon his ramblings became a mission. Songs poured out of him, whether complete originals or, in the folk tradition, old tunes borrowed and new lyrics reworked for topical comment.
Through 1938 and 1939 – when not on the road – he lived in Los Angeles where Mary and their, by then, two children joined him. He mooched his way into a morning radio show and began writing an idiosyncratic folksy column in the Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily World. He never joined the party but was happy to help the causes he believed in.
After he upset his wife by singing for striking cotton workers instead of attending the birth of their third child, Bill, she insisted on returning to Pampa, but in February 1941 he moved on to New York, which became a sort of base camp for the rest of his life.
Within days he played a benefit for the Steinbeck Committee with Leadbelly, Burl Ives and a young debutant, Pete Seeger. It led to Woody’s first recordings (for Lomax in Washington DC), to radio shows in New York, and to lanky, innocent Seeger offering him a room in the Greenwich Village apartment he shared.
In April, Guthrie recorded Dust Bowl Ballads – two six-song ‘albums’ – for RCA, and by May he had set off again, but driving his own new Chrysler-Plymouth this time, with Seeger as passenger/apprentice.
As they headed for Pampa – Woody gave Mary hundreds of dollars from his New York windfalls – he taught Seeger the arts and crafts of hitching, boarding a moving freight train, and busking.
Back in New York again, Guthrie landed a regular spot on the sponsored Pipe Smoking Time radio show. He summoned Mary and the kids to join him in a smart rented apartment near Central Park. It didn’t last.
He quit the radio station gig because they wouldn’t let him sing what he wanted to sing. In a huff, he left the city and drove the whole family from coast to coast and riches to poverty. By the time they paused in Sonora, east of San Francisco, they were flat broke.
Busking in bars and selling firewood gathered in the nearby forest, Guthrie earned barely enough for room and food. It was President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ reform programme that saved them.
In May 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration, a massive public works enterprise developing hydro-electricity on the Columbia River, hired Guthrie for a month (and $266) to write music for a documentary film. Guthrie blitzed through 26 songs.
When Pete Seeger invited Woody to join his new band, The Almanac Singers, he left his wife – one too many times. Mary went back to Texas and sued for divorce.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Seeger joined the army. Guthrie put his guitar over his shoulder and went busking on the Staten Island Ferry.
In 1943 – after his divorce from Mary and the birth of Cathy, his first child with dancer Marjorie Mazia – he joined the merchant marine and sailed in three transatlantic Liberty ship convoys between June 1943 and July 1944. In separate incidents when his ships were struck by a torpedo and a mine, he plunged down into the lower decks where injured men needed rescuing.
During this time, Guthrie went to Moses Arch, who owned the Stinson label, and asked him to record every song he could think of. In five long days between 16 April and 19 May 1944, sometimes accompanied by Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry, he hammered out about 150 tracks.
Post-war, he never stopped playing and writing: hundreds of songs, screeds of articles, and his second autobiographical novel, Seeds Of Man (to follow 1943’s Bound For Glory).
Meanwhile, Woody Guthrie began to succumb to Huntington’s disease which he had inherited from his mother, just as he had always feared. Apart from physical signs, he would forget lyrics and even gigs.
On 9 February 1947, he returned back at his Coney Island house from singing for strikers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to find that his daughter Cathy, inspiration for most of his children’s songs, had suffered fatal burns in an accident at their home.
He and Marjorie, married in 1945, had more children: Arlo, Joady and Nora. But Guthrie earned little and remained an irregular provider, leaning heavily on Marjorie’s dance teaching income – more so when his ramblings resumed in the early 1950s.
Guthrie’s involuntary physical jerks became entangled with fits of rage and violence. After he hit Marjorie and one of their children, she offered no resistance when, in summer 1953, he got a Mexican divorce to marry his latest girlfriend, Anneke Marshall. They had a baby, then broke up and their daughter was adopted.
On 16 September 1954, Woody checked into Brooklyn State Hospital with a writing pad, his guitar, his Seeds Of Man manuscript and a spare shirt. Two years later he was committed to nearby Greystone.
Marjorie, who despite everything never divorced Woody in her heart, brought him home every weekend.
On 3 October 1967, at Creedmore State Hospital in Queens, New York, he died of pneumonia. He was aged just 55.