Perhaps only Will Rogers endures as a more revered native son of Oklahoma than enigmatic musical genius and champion of the common folk, Woody Guthrie. The Okemah native inspired millions as he wrote, sang, and played folk, country, blues, protest, and even children’s music, weaving his art into the permanent tapestry of American history.
Guthrie’s childhood fueled his ceaseless concern and passion for the poor, suffering, and powerless. His father Charles, a Texas cowboy, migrated to Oklahoma and built a thriving real estate business. But the struggling farm economy, failed land deals, and domestic strains conspired to wreck his financial fortunes and plummet the Guthries into poverty.
Their plight grew worse when fires destroyed their home and killed Woody’s little sister Clara, and nearly killed his father. His mother, meanwhile, fell into a tortuous descent of rage and madness, later diagnosed as Huntingdon’s Disease,.
His mother institutionalized and his father gone to the Texas Panhandle to convalesce with relatives, Woody Guthrie found himself at age 14 bouncing from home to home, while shining shoes, cleaning spittoons, and selling newspapers. He joined his father in Pampa, Texas in 1929 at age 17, and learned the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. He dropped out of high school, but from childhood read constantly.
Guthrie married the first of his three wives, Mary Jennings, at age 19, as the Dust Bowl descended upon the Southwest. They had three children, all of whom died young. A couple of years after they wed, Guthrie left his family and “rode the rails” to California with other migrant workers, singing and playing his guitar along the way.
Fame and Greatness
Living in Los Angeles through the 1930s, Guthrie hired on at the popular KFDV radio in Hollywood, where he sang “hillbilly” and folk songs. The growing migrant population from Oklahoma and other heartland states no doubt fueled his popularity. As Guthrie’s songwriting talents and rabble-rousing socialist politics blossomed, however, war exploded in Europe, and Communist Russia attacked Poland. Guthrie left the station rather than suffer creative muzzling from KFDV’s nervous ownership.
He rejoined his family in 1940 and his greatest songwriting phase unfolded in the early ‘40s. It spawned So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You, Bound for Glory, and This Land Is Your Land. The Recording Industry Association of America named the latter the third most important song written in the 20th century. He also recorded his Oklahoma Hills and the classic Red River Valley.
His marriage to Mary ended during this period, and he married Marjorie Guzenblatt, a Brooklyn Jewess. Identifying the discrimination suffered by Jews with that of his fellow migrant “Okies” and other struggling folk, Guthrie collaborated with Marjorie’s poetess mother Aliza on a series of songs. The Jewish group the Klezmatics won a Grammy in 2007 for their arrangement of these songs.
In testament to Guthrie’s surprising range of appeal, in 2005 the Irish punk rock group the Dropkick Murphys put music to his Shipping Up to Boston. It highlighted the Oscar-winning film The Departed.
Following stints in the Merchant Marines and U.S. Army during World War II, Guthrie’s songwriting and recording successes multiplied through the 1940s. Amidst his many popular songs from the country-western and traditional American genres, he also spearheaded a folk music movement that, invigorated with cries for peace and social and economic justice, reached historic proportions in the 1960s.
Enemies and Final Years
Woody Guthrie did not claim belief in the Bible or orthodox Christianity, and his politics stood well to the left of Will Rogers’. Yet he named Jesus and Rogers as his two heroes. As evinced in his classic ballad Jesus Christ, he believed Jesus a heroic advocate of the poor, needy, and marginalized, and that the same tyrannical forces murdered Him that preyed upon the weak and defenseless of Guthrie’s time and place.
Thus, he embraced the beliefs of Marxism and Communism—though probably not many of the practices of their violent offshoot, Bolshevism—secular philosophies that aimed to share the capital and opportunities created by the more wealthy with the less affluent. Though he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote for its publications and revered it.
Reverence for Guthrie does not reign unanimous, as reflected in the article “Woody Was No Hero to Some,” on an adjacent page. Many condemn the folk hero status he accorded criminals like Charley “Pretty Boy” Floyd (“I love a good man outside the law, just as much as I hate a bad man inside the law.”) (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 5), and his passion for history’s greatest criminal conspiracy, Communism.
Also, Guthrie left a regrettable legacy in his personal life as a husband and father. He abandoned his wife and small children during the nadir of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. He did not grace them with his presence for a few years, and then only intermittently.
Guthrie received induction into virtually every significant American music hall of fame. Otherwise, his final years proved grueling. Fire returned to claim one of his children with his second wife Marjorie. The horrific Huntington’s Disease that cut down his mother and grandfather—and eventually two of his children—slowly destroyed his own mind, body, and both his second and third marriages.
He spent the last many years of his life in sanitariums. Marjorie returned to his life and cared for him until the end, which came on October 3, 1967.
Among Guthrie’s most faithful visitors through his declining years was legendary singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, who idolized him and said his hero’s “songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” Song to Woody, one of the first songs Dylan ever wrote, perhaps provides as good a benediction as any for this fiery son of Oklahoma:
Hey Woody Guthrie but I know that you know
All the things that I'm saying and a many times more
I'm singing you the song but I can't you sing enough
'Cause there's not many men that've done the things that you've done.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.