A Rockapaedia Obituary
Woody Guthrie died aged fifty-five in from Huntington's disease on 3rd October, 1967 in New York City, New York, U.S.A. He was survived by his ex-wife, Marjorie, sons, Arlo and Joady and daughters, Nora, Lorinna Lynn, Gwen and Sue.
Woody Guthrie was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on 14th of July, 1912 in Okemah,Oklahoma, U.S.A., the son of Nora and Charles Guthrie. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, the then Governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate who was elected as President of the United States in 1912.
Charles Guthrie was an industrious businessman, owning at one time up to thirty plots of land in Okfuskee County and he was actively involved in Oklahoma politics and was a conservative Democratic candidate for office in the county. Charles Guthrie was reportedly involved in the 1911 lynching of Laura and L. D. Nelson. Woody Guthrie wrote three songs about the event in the 1960s and said that his father, became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.
Three significant fires occurred during Woody Guthrie's early life. There was one in 1909 that caused the loss of his family's home in Okemah, a month after the house was completed. When Woody Guthrie was seven, his sister Clara died after setting her clothes on fire during an argument with her mother, and, later, in 1927, their father was severely burned in a fire at home. Woody Guthrie's mother, Nora, was afflicted with Huntington's disease, although the family did not know this at the time and what they could observe was dementia and muscular degeneration.
When Woody was fourteen, his mother was committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane. At the time his father was living and working in Pampa, Texas, to repay debts from unsuccessful real estate deals. Woody and his siblings were then left on their own in Oklahoma and relied on their eldest brother Roy for support. The fourteen year-old Woody Guthrie worked odd jobs around Okemah, begging meals and sometimes sleeping at the homes of family friends.
Woody Guthrie had a natural affinity for music, learning old ballads and traditional English and Scottish songs from the parents of friends. Woody befriended an African-American shoeshine boy named George, who played blues on his harmonica. After listening to George play, Woody bought his own harmonica and began playing along with him and then he would busk for money and food. Although Woody did not do well as a student and dropped out of high school in his senior year before graduation, his teachers described him as bright. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics.
In 1929, Woody's father sent for him to come to Texas, but little changed for the aspiring musician. Woody, then 18, was reluctant to attend high school classes in Pampa and spent most of his time learning songs by busking on the streets and reading in the library at Pampa's city hall. He regularly played at dances with his father's half-brother Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle player. Woody's mother died in 1930 of Huntington's disease while still in the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane.
At the age of nineteen Woody Guthrie met and married his first wife, Mary, in Texas in 1931. They had three children together: Gwendolyn, Sue, and Bill. Bill died at age twenty-three in an automobile accident and both daughters died in the 1970s of Huntington's disease, probably passed on from their father, although Woody Guthrie himself was not diagnosed with the condition until much later.
Woody and Mary Guthrie divorced in 1940 and Woody married twice more, to Marjorie Greenblatt, untill 1953, and Anneke Van Kirkand untill 1956 and fathered a total of eight children. During the Dust Bowl period, Woody Guthrie joined the thousands of Okies and others who migrated to California to look for work, leaving his wife and children in Texas. Many of his songs were concerned with the conditions faced by working-class people. During the latter part of that decade, he achieved fame with radio partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman as a broadcast performer of commercial hillbilly music and traditional folk music. Woody Guthrie was earning enough money to send for his family to join him from Texas. While appearing on the radio station KFVD, owned by a populist-minded New Deal Democrat, Frank W. Burke, Woody Guthrie began to write and perform some of the protest songs that was eventually released on his album Dust Bowl Ballads.
While at KFVD, Woody Guthrie met newscaster Ed Robbin who was impressed with a song Woody wrote about political activist Thomas Mooney, wrongly convicted in a case that was a cause célèbre of the time. Robbin, who became Woody Guthrie's political mentor, introduced Woody to socialists and Communists in Southern California, including Will Geer who introduced Woody to writer John Steinbeck. Robbin remained Woody Guthrie's lifelong friend, and helped Woody book benefit performances in the communist circles in Southern California.
Woody Guthrie wrote a column for the communist newspaper, People's World, although he never joined the Communist Party. The column was entitled "Woody Sez", and was not explicitly political, but about current events as observed by Woody.
Arriving in New York, Woody Guthrie, known as "the Oklahoma cowboy", was embraced by its folk music community and made his first recordings—several hours of conversation and songs recorded by the folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress—as well as an album, Dust Bowl Ballads, for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey. In February 1940 Woody wrote his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land", as a response to what he felt was an overplaying of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" on the radio. He adapted the melody from an old gospel song, "Oh My Loving Brother", which had been adapted by the country group the Carter Family for their song "When The World's On Fire". Woody Guthrie signed the manuscript with the comment, "All you can write is what you see." Although the song was written in 1940, it was four years before he recorded it in April 1944.
In March 1940 Woody Guthrie was invited to play at a benefit hosted by the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers, to raise money for migrant workers. There he met the folksinger Pete Seeger, and the two men became good friends. Seeger accompanied Woody Guthrie back to Texas to meet other members of the Guthrie family.
From April 1940 Woody Guthrie and Seeger lived together in the Greenwich Village loft of sculptor Harold Ambellan and his fiancee. Woody had some success in New York at this time as a guest on CBS's radio program Back Where I Come From and used his influence to get a spot on the show for his friend Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. Ledbetter's Tenth Street apartment was a gathering spot for the musician circle in New York at the time, and Woody and Ledbetter became good friends, as they had busked together at bars in Harlem.
In November 1941 Seeger introduced Woody Guthrie to his friend the poet Charles Olson, then a junior editor at the fledgling magazine Common Ground. The meeting led to Woody Guthrie writing the article "Ear Players" in the Spring 1942 issue of the magazine. The article marked Woody Guthrie's debut as a published writer in the mainstream media. In September 1940 Woody was invited by the Model Tobacco Company to host their radio program 'Pipe Smoking Time'. Woody was paid $180 a week, an impressive salary in 1940. He was finally making enough money to send regular payments back to Mary. He also brought her and the children to New York, where the family lived briefly in an apartment on Central Park West. The reunion represented Woody's desire to be a better father and husband. Woody, however, quit the show after the seventh broadcast, claiming he had begun to feel the show was too restrictive when he was being told what to sing. Now disgruntled with New York, Woody packed up Mary and the children in a new car and headed west to California.
In May 1941, after a brief stay in Los Angeles, Woody Guthrie moved to Portland, Oregon, in the neighborhood of Lents, on the promise of a job. Gunther von Fritsch was directing a documentary about the Bonneville Power Administration's construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, and needed a narrator. Alan Lomax had recommended Woody Guthrie to narrate the film and sing songs onscreen. The original project was expected to take 12 months, but as filmmakers became worried about casting such a political figure, they minimized Woody Guthrie's role. The Department of the Interior hired him for one month to write songs about the Columbia River and the construction of the federal dams for the documentary's soundtrack. Woody toured the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest and said he "couldn't believe it, it's a paradise". In one month Woody Guthrie wrote 26 songs, including three of his most famous: "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On", "Pastures of Plenty", and "Grand Coulee Dam". The surviving songs were released as Columbia River Songs.
At the conclusion of the month in Oregon and Washington, Woody Guthrie wanted to return to New York. Tired of the continual uprooting, Mary Guthrie told him to go without her and the children. Although Woody would see Mary again, once on a tour through Los Angeles with the Almanac Singers, it was essentially the end of their marriage. Divorce was difficult, since Mary was a member of the Catholic Church, but she reluctantly agreed in December 1943.
Following the conclusion of his work in the Northwest, Woody corresponded with Pete Seeger about Seeger's newly formed folk-protest group, the Almanac Singers. Woody returned to New York with plans to tour the country as a member of the group. The singers originally worked out of a loft in New York City hosting regular concerts called "hootenannies", a word Pete and Woody had picked up in their cross-country travels. The singers eventually outgrew the space and moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village.
Initially Woody helped write and sing what the Almanac Singers termed "peace" songs. After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the group wrote anti-fascist songs.
The members of the Almanac Singers and residents of the Almanac House were a loosely defined group of musicians, though the core members included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays. In keeping with common utopian ideals, meals, chores and rent at the Almanac House were shared. The Sunday hootenannies were good opportunities to collect donation money for rent. Songs written in the Almanac House had shared songwriting credits among all the members, although in the case of "Union Maid", members would later state that Woody Guthrie wrote the song, ensuring that his children would receive residuals. In the Almanac House, Woody Guthrie added authenticity to their work, since he was a "real" working class Oklahoman. ] Woody Guthrie contributed songwriting and authenticity in much the same capacity for Pete Seeger's post-Almanac Singers project People's Songs, a newsletter and booking organization for labor singers, founded in 1945.
Woody Guthrie was a prolific writer, penning thousands of pages of unpublished poems and prose, many written while living in New York City. After a recording session with Alan Lomax, Lomax suggested Woody write an autobiography. Lomax thought Woody Guthrie's descriptions of growing up were some of the best accounts he had read of American childhood. During this time Woody met Marjorie Mazia, a dancer in New York who would become his second wife. Marjorie was an instructor at the prestigious Martha Graham Dance School, where she was assisting Sophie Maslow with her piece Folksay. Based on the folklore and poetry collected by Carl Sandburg, Folksay included the adaptation of some of Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads for the dance. Woody continued to write songs and began work on his autobiography. The end product, Bound for Glory, was completed with the patient editing assistance of Mazia and was first published by E.P. Dutton in 1943. It is vividly told in the artist's down-home dialect, with the flair and imagery of a true storyteller.
In 1944 Woody met Moses "Moe" Asch of Folkways Records, for whom he first recorded "This Land Is Your Land". Over the next few years, he recorded "Worried Man Blues", along with hundreds of other songs. These recordings would later be released by Folkways and Stinson Records, which had joint distribution rights. The Folkways recordings are available (through the Smithsonian Institution online shop); the most complete series of these sessions, culled from dates with Asch, is titled The Asch Recordings. Woody believed performing his anti-fascist songs and poems in the United States was the best use of his talents.
While he was on furlough from the Army, Woody Guthrie married Marjorie and after his discharge, they moved into a house on Coney Island and over time had four children: daughters Cathy and Nora; and sons Arlo and Joady. Cathy died as a result of a fire at the age of four, and Woody suffered a serious depression from his grief. Arlo and Joady followed in their father's footsteps as singer-songwriters.
When his family was young, Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, a collection of children's music, which includes the song "Goodnight Little Arlo (Goodnight Little Darlin')", written when Arlo was about nine years old. During 1947 he wrote House of Earth, an historical novel about a couple who build a house made of clay and earth to withstand the Dust Bowl's brutal weather. He could not get it published but it was published posthumously in 2013, by Harper, under actor Johnny Depp's publishing imprint, Infinitum Nihil.
Woody Guthrie was also a prolific sketcher and painter, his images ranging from simple, impressionistic images to free and characterful drawings, typically of the people in his songs. In 1949, Woody Guthrie's music was used in the documentary film Columbia River, which explored government dams and hydroelectric projects on the river. Woody had been commissioned by the US Bonneville Power Administration in 1941 to write songs for the project, but it had been postponed by World War II.
The years immediately after the war when he lived on Mermaid Avenue were among Woody Guthrie's most productive as a writer. His extensive writings from this time were archived and maintained by Marjorie and later his estate, mostly handled by his daughter Nora. Several of the manuscripts also contain writing by a young Arlo and the other Guthrie children. During this time Ramblin' Jack Elliott studied extensively under Woody Guthrie, visiting his home and observing how he wrote and performed. Elliott, like Bob Dylan later, idolized Woody Guthrie. He was inspired by the singer's idiomatic performance style and repertoire. Because of the decline caused by Woody's progressive Huntington's disease, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan both later said that they had learned much of Woody Guthrie's performance style from Elliott. When asked about this, Elliott said, "I was flattered. Dylan learned from me the same way I learned from Woody. Woody didn't teach me. He just said: "If you want to learn something, just steal it; that's the way I learned from Lead Belly."
By the late 1940s, Woody Guthrie's health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia). In 1952, it was eventually found that he was suffering from Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder inherited from his mother. Believing him to be a danger to their children because of his behavior, Marjorie suggested he return to California without her and they eventually divorced.
Upon his return to California, Woody Guthrie lived at the Theatricum Botanicum, a summer-stock type theatre founded and owned by Will Geer. Together with singers and actors who had been blacklisted by HUAC, he waited out the anti-communist political climate. As his health worsened, he met and married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk. They had a child, Lorinna Lynn. The couple moved to Fruit Cove, Florida, where they briefly lived. They lived in a bus on land called Beluthahatchee, owned by his friend Stetson Kennedy. Woody Guthrie's arm was hurt in an accident when gasoline used to start the campfire exploded. Although he regained movement in the arm, he was never able to play the guitar again. In 1954, the couple returned to New York. Shortly after, Anneke filed for divorce, a result of the strain of caring for Woody. She left New York after arranging for friends to adopt Lorinna Lynn. Lorinna had no further contact with her birth parents. She died in a car accident in California in 1973 at the age of 19. After the divorce, Woody's second wife, Marjorie, re-entered his life and cared for him until his death.
Increasingly unable to control his muscles, Woody was hospitalized until his death in 1967. During the final few years of his life, Woody Guthrie had become isolated except for family. The progression of Huntington's threw Woody Guthrie into extreme emotional states. By the time of his death, his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced through Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, his ex-wife Marjorie and other new members of the folk revival, and his son Arlo Guthrie.