Folk Singer, Songwriter, Social Activist. He is best known for penning the song "This Land Is Your Land." His songs would inspire and influence other musicians such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, as well as his son, Arlo Guthrie. Born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma, his father was a local politician and businessman. His early life was affected by tragedy, including the death of his sister in a fire when he was 7, as well as his father being severely burned in a different fire. His mother suffered from Huntington's disease and was committed to a mental institution when he was 14, where she died in 1930. His father moved to Pampa, Texas to find work and he and his siblings remained in Oklahoma where his older brother supported them. He worked odd jobs, sometimes begging for food and sleeping wherever he could find a bed. It was during this time he discovered that he had a natural affinity for music and learned to play the guitar and harmonica by ear. When he was 18, his father sent for him to come and live in Texas, where he spent most of his time playing music and reading in the Pampa city library. A year later, he married Mary Jennings and later relocated to California, leaving his wife and family behind in Texas, joining many others from the Midwest who were looking for work during the Dust Bowl era. He began writing songs about his experiences and soon landed a job performing country and traditional folk music on a local radio station show, making enough money to have his family join him. He became a Communist sympathizer and befriended socialists like actor Will Geer and novelist John Steinbeck, but he never actually became a member of the Communist Party. From May 1939 to January 1940 he wrote a column for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, titled "Woody Sez," which was not explicitly political but reflected his views on current events. In January 1940 the radio station show ceased to exist due to the political climate of the time and he and his family moved back to Pampa, Texas. He soon accepted an invitation from Will Geer to relocate to New York City, New York, where he made his first recordings, including an album "Dust Bowl Ballads" for Victor Records. His dislike for Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which was constantly played on the radio, coupled with his experiences during his recent cross-country trip, inspired him to write "This Land Is Your Land," although it wasn't recorded until four years later. He made guest appearances on the CBS radio program "Back Where I Came From" and in September 1940 he was invited by the Model Tobacco Company to host their radio program, "Pipe Smoking Time," where he made an impressive salary of $180 a week. He soon sent for his family to join him in New York City; however, he quit the program after the 7th broadcast because he felt that he was being restricted on what he could sing. He and his family moved to Los Angeles, California, and in May 1941, they moved again to Washington state where Gunther von Fritsch was documenting a film about the Bonneville Power Administration's construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, and he hired Guthrie to narrate the film and sing onscreen. Because of his political affiliations, his role in the documentary was minimized. However, 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. He toured the Columbia River and was inspired to write 26 songs, including "Roll On, Columbia." "Pastures of Plenty," and "Grand Coulee Dam." After completing this project, he decided to move back to New York City but his wife refused to go and took their children back to California, eventually divorcing him in 1943. He joined musician Pete Seeger's newly formed musical folk-protest group, the Almanac Singers, and began touring with them. During this time me met Marjorie Mazia, an instructor and dancer at the Martha Graham dance School, who would eventually become his second wife. He continued writing poems and songs and his record producer, Alan Lomax, suggested that he write an autobiography which resulted in "Bound for Glory" and was published in 1943. When the United States entered World War II, he requested the US Army to accept him as a USO performer vice drafting him into the Army. His request was denied and he joined the US Merchant Marine. In 1945, his ties to Communism made him ineligible for further service with the Merchant Marine and he was drafted into the US Army. He and Marjorie married in 1945, eventually moving to Coney Island, New York after he was discharged from the Army, and over time they had four children. When his daughter died as a result of a fire at the age of four, he went into a deep depression. In 1949, his music was featured in the film "Columbia River." By this time, his health began to decline and his behavior became extremely erratic. In 1952 he was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder that he inherited from his mother. His wife, believing that he was a danger to her and their children, suggested that he relocate to California by himself and they eventually divorced in 1953. In California, he lived at the Theatricum Botanicum, a summer-stock type theatre owned by his friend Will Geer. While there, he met and married for a third time to Anneke van Kirk and they moved briefly to Fruit Cove, Florida, where he injured his arm in a campfire accident and was never able to play the guitar again. In 1954 they moved to New York City and his wife soon filed for a divorce, brought on by the strain of caring for him. His second wife reentered his life and took care of him until his death. His disease finally progressed to the point where he could no longer control his muscles and he was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital from 1956 to 1961, then at Brooklyn State Hospital until 1966, and at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center until his death in 1967. Because there was a lack of information about his disease, it basically went untreated. (Two of his three children from his first wife also died from the same disease.) His death helped to raise awareness of Huntington's disease and his wife helped to found the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease (later the Huntington's Disease Society of America). In 1988, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2000, he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
"BOUND FOR GLORY"