Today is the birthday (1912) of Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie legendary singer-songwriter who was influential in the careers of a host of singer-songwriters who are commonly called folk singers – people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton – as well as a host of singer-songwriters in a variety of other genres such as Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Hunter, Harry Chapin, John Mellencamp, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia, Jay Farrar, Bob Weir, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers, and Sammy Walker. I am not crazy about the 1960s-era terms “folk singer” and “folk music” used in relation to singers like Guthrie or Dylan or Paxton because I prefer to reserve them for traditional singers who pass on their songs from generation to generation, rather than those whose claim to the title is that they play acoustic guitars. It is, however, a relatively well defined genre of a certain era, so minimally I’ll acknowledge its existence as such. The genre, largely following Guthrie, concerned anti-war songs, as well as children’s songs, songs of community, social justice, and social commentary. Guthrie’s best known song is probably “This Land Is Your Land”
He frequently performed with the slogan This machine kills fascists displayed on his guitar.
Guthrie was brought up by middle-class parents in Okemah, Oklahoma until he was 14, when his mother was hospitalised as a consequence of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary neurological disorder. At this time his father had to move to Pampa, Texas to repay debts from unsuccessful real estate deals. During his early teens Guthrie learned a variety of songs from his parents’ friends. He married at 19, but with the advent of the dust storms that marked the Dust Bowl period, he left his wife and three children to join the thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for work.
Guthrie worked at Los Angeles radio station KFVD, achieving a degree of fame from playing what was called hillbilly music in those days and made friends with Will Geer and John Steinbeck. He wrote a column for the Communist newspaper People’s World from May 1939 to January 1940. Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States’ Communist groups, although he was never a member of one. With the outbreak of World War II and the non-aggression pact the Soviet Union had signed with Germany in 1939, the owners of KFVD radio were not comfortable with Guthrie’s Communist sympathies, so he left the station, ending up in New York where he wrote and recorded his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, based on his Dust Bowl experiences, and which earned him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” In February 1940 he wrote “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.
Guthrie believed performing his anti-fascist songs and poems at home was the best use of his talents rather than serving in the army during World War II, so he lobbied the United States Army to accept him as a USO performer instead of conscripting him as a soldier in the draft. When this attempt failed, his friends Cisco Houston and Jim Longhi persuaded him to join the U.S. Merchant Marine in June 1943. He made several voyages aboard the merchant ships SS William B. Travis, SS William Floyd, and SS Sea Porpoise while they travelled in convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic. He served as a mess man and dishwasher and frequently sang for the crew and troops to buoy their spirits on transatlantic voyages. His first ship, William B. Travis, hit a mine in the Mediterranean Sea, killing one person aboard, but made it to Bizerte, Tunisia under her own power. His last ship, Sea Porpoise, took troops from the United States for the D-Day invasion. Guthrie was aboard when the ship was torpedoed off Utah Beach by the German submarine U-390 on July 5, 1944, injuring 12 of the crew. Guthrie was unhurt and the ship stayed afloat to be repaired at Newcastle in England before returning to the United States in July 1944. He was an active supporter of the National Maritime Union, the main union for wartime American sailors. Guthrie wrote songs about his experience in the Merchant Marine but was never satisfied with the results.. In 1945, Guthrie’s association with Communism made him ineligible for further service in the Merchant Marine, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
While he was on furlough from the Army, Guthrie married Marjorie Mazia, an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School. After his discharge, they moved into a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island and over time had four children: daughters Cathy and Nora; and sons Arlo and Joady. During this period, 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.
The years living on Mermaid Avenue were among 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. Bob Dylan learnt of the existence of this archive containing hundreds of previously unknown lyrics and was able to obtain them eventually, although the exact details are, as usual, shrouded in Dylan’s fanciful prose which is always part fact and part fiction. Eventually Dylan gave the lyrics to Billy Bragg who set many to music and produced 3 albums. Here’s my favorite from the albums, “Birds and Ships” sung by Natalie Merchant:
I’m afraid Woody’s favorite food was a Nathan’s hot dog and French fries. This from Rolling Stone:
Nora vividly recalled the day the family spread Woody’s ashes there after his death on October 3rd, 1967. The ashes, she remembered, came in a small can which her mother opened with a can opener. “We didn’t have any religious traditions,” Nora said. “We were inventing things along the way.”
“It was a comedy of errors,” Nora recalled. “We climbed out on the rocks and it was really windy and we were slipping on the rocks. We threw the whole can in, and it bobbed along and came back on shore. It kept happening. Finally, we held the can down in the water, filled it with a little water and chucked it in. The can is probably still out there.”
“We didn’t know what to do afterward,” Guthrie said. “We didn’t have religious traditions. Stand in silence? Prayer? Mom said, ‘I think Woody would really want us to just go to Nathan’s. So we went over to Nathan’s and sat on the ground with our backs against the wall with my father’s favorite food, a hot dog and French fries. That was the big ceremony.”