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Oklahoma Troubadour: Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

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.