Guthrie was born July 14
, Oklahoma - a tiny town which at the time was rolling in the oil boom. In an interview with Alan Lomax
conducted in 1940 for the Federal Government, Guthrie described Okemah as demographically half white, one-fourth black, and one-fourth Native American
, citing the black musicians in Okemah among his first teachers and influences.
Guthrie's mother, Nora Sherman Guthrie, was another easily citable influence, sharing with him the melancholy Irish ballads she had been taught as a child. Nora herself was possessed of an melancholy temperament. She was devastated by the destruction of the Guthries' first home in an accidental fire, and by the demise of Woody's older sister Clara, who at 14, caught on fire in the middle of a fight with Nora. Nora's behavior grew more and more erratic as she neared middle age, so she was misdiagnosed as mentally ill and committed to the state mental intitution in Oklahoma, where she died.
Guthrie's father, Charles, who dabbled in real estate, moved the family to Pampa, Texas, in the middle of the dust bowl. There Guthrie witnessed the 1934 dust storm famously described in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Guthrie's song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You, during which the sky darkened for three days and three nights, and a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling glowed like a cigarette ash in the dark. Guthrie, like legions of other Okies, headed west to California, leaving behind his first wife, Mary, and their three children, Gwen, Sue and Bill. His autobiography Bound for Glory (and a pitiful David Carradine movie of the same name) describes his adventures riding freights in search of work and adventure: in contrast to most motion-picture depictions of hoboing, freight trains during this period often carried 40-50 illicit passengers per car. In southern California he played for striking workers at labor camps and also sang on the radio.
It is at this point that Guthrie, witnessing the hostility of the state of California to outsiders in search of work, developed his political consciousness. Though he never joined the communist party, and was evasive as to his political leanings ("Left wing, chicken wing, it's all the same to me"; "I won't say I'm a communist exactly but I been in the red all my life"), Guthrie wrote for adamantly left-wing publications and wrote ideologically charged lyrics characterizing Pretty Boy Floyd and Jesus Christ as Robin Hood-type populist heroes ("He said sell all your jewelry and give it to the poor, so they laid Jesus Christ in his grave").
Later he moved to New York City, discovering an urban scene that had devoted itself to rural styles of music such as folk and blues. He befriended Pete Seeger (joining the Alamanac Singers with him in the early 1940s) and Leadbelly, among others, but after becoming restless with the censored and highly commerical New York radio scene, Guthrie accepted an invitation to write songs for a documentary about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. Upon arriving, Guthrie found out that the film had fallen through, but the Bonneville Power Administration put him on payroll for a month anyway - during which he wrote the songs for his album Columbia River Ballads .
Following a WWII stint in the Merchant Marine (with friends Cisco Huston and Jimmy Longhi), Guthrie returned to New York and married dance teacher Marjorie Mazia Guthrie and moved to a cozy house on Mermaid Avenue with her, and started a family. (Guthrie wrote numerous songs here, which were culled for Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue albums. Guthrie usually composed at a typewriter, keeping his guitar handy and a tune in mind, leaving Bragg and Wilco to make an educated guess as to the tune of Guthrie's songs.) He also wrote numerous children's songs during this period, inspired by his daughter Cathy, on whom he doted.
Following the death of four-year-old daughter Cathy (also in a home fire), the grief-stricken Guthries dicovered they were expecting another child. Once, while walking on the beach, Marjorie remarked that Woody, looking very childlike with his pant legs rolled up to his knees, reminded her of a character in a book she had read as a girl. The character's name was Arlo, and Guthrie suggested they name they name the baby that. Following Arlo Guthrie's birth in 1948, Marjorie and Woody had two more children - Joady and Nora.
In the the 1950s Guthrie's behavior grew and more and more erratic. He ran away for a brief period with a young woman named Anneke Van Kirk and had another child with her, but returned to Marjorie, who was his caregiver during his last years. His behavior was eventually attributed to Huntington's disease, or Huntington's chorea, which manifests itself (by ripping the nervous system to incoherent shreds) when the patient reaches his or her 30s. The disease is also gentically inherent, which explained why so many of Woody's forebears (including his mother) died so young, and in such bizarre circumstances.
Like his mother, Guthrie was initially sent to a mental insitution in New Jersey (according to legend, he liked to bike to Princeton and shoot the shit with Albert Einstein; that story is probably an extension of Guthrie's myth-making, but it's one of my favorites, so I have to leave it in). Another story, which is probably true, is that when Pete Seeger went to visit his ailing friend, the doctor told him, This guy's crazy. He says he's written a thousand songs. Pete said, Duh, He has written a thousand songs (his discography, by the by, is 30+ pages long). Guthrie, fortunately, was later moved to a medical hospital in New York.
In the early 1960s a young folksinger named Robert Zimmerman borrowed a copy of Bound for Glory from a prof at the University of Minnesota. Having established himself as a Woody Guthrie jukebox and having learned that Guthrie was dying, he hitch-hiked east and made himself at home with the remaining Guthries. (He became - and in many ways remains - a mentor to Arlo Guthrie, who was 11 when he got his first harmonica lesson from then-19-year-old Bob Dylan.)
Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land," as a parody of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which had become an ironic hit int he midst of the Great Depression; the original chorus, "God blessed America for me," was changed to "This land was made for you and me," and the rest is history. He could not have predicted that millions of children would learn the song in classrooms as a patriotic anthem (with, as ailie noted elsewhere, the anti-private property lyrics quietly left out); I was one of those who sang it every morning after the flag salute in Kindergarten, and since I grew up in one of the most convservative places in the country, I can't imagine my teacher knew it was penned by a communist.
Nor could Guthrie have predicted his appearance on a first-class postage stamp (Arlo has said in concert that he wasn't surprised to see his father's picture at the post office - but he never in a million years dreamed it would be on a stamp). His legacy is evident all over. Okemah, which following his death in 1967, was rooted in the "Okie from Muskogee" mentality and perturbed by the hippie tourists who came to visit Woody's old house; now the town hosts a Woody Guthrie Days celebration each summer near his birthday, the political climate having cooled somewhat. Numerous musicians claim Guthrie as an influence, including his son, who wrote "Alice's Restaurant" at the age of 19, just before his father died, the aforementioned Dylan, Ani di Franco, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Billy Bragg and Wilco (ya think?), and Judy Collins to name a few.
Sources: Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein
Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax's Library of Congress recordings
David Arkush's now-defunct Woody Guthrie pages
Dylan by Anthony Scaduto
Oral accounts (i.e. Arlo Guthrie's live act)