not a member? click here to sign up
Holding Out For A Folk Hero
It’s the centenary of the birth of Wooody Guthrie, a towering figure in American folk and a huge influence on Bob Dylan and others.
Greg McAteer, 29 Aug 2012
One hundred years ago this month Woody Guthrie was born. We can all agree it was a milestone in popular music. In 1912 folk was what it had been for centuries, if not millennia: the undiluted expression of the experiences of the common people, farmers, fishermen, migrant workers and casual labourers.
Guthrie was born into rural poverty, the son of an industrious if inept Oklahoma property speculator who lost whatever money the family had, and a mother who was institutionalised when he was 14 as a consequence of Huntingdon’s Chorea (the same degenerative disease which which would eventually fell Guthrie himself). He was forced to leave his native Oklahoma for Texas aged 18 to rejoin his father who had abandoned the children to fend for themselves four years earlier (while he sought work to repay his debts). Guthrie had picked up the harmonica in Oklahoma and proved adept at learning old Irish and Scottish folk by ear. In Texas he dropped out of school to busk, spending his spare moments reading in the town library.
Within a year he had married for the first time, to Mary Jennings with whom he had three children. As the great depression bit deep and the Texas economy became mired in the dustbowl era he did what he was to do over and over again. Like his father before him he upped sticks and left, joining the thousands of ‘Okies’ on the migrant trail to California. His wife and three kids were left in Texas. Guthrie settled in Los Angeles where his cousin Leon ‘Jack’ Guthrie was a performer on the radio station KVFD. Before long Guthrie had teamed up with Maxine Crissman, better known as Lefty Lou and began to write and perform the songs that would be collected together as ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’. He earned enough to bring his family out from Texas but as he became more trenchant in his communist leanings he was forced to leave the station with the onset of the Second World War, as he refused to denounce the Soviet Union.
Moving back to Texas with his wife and children he must have been daunted at the lack of prospects. So he seized the opportunity to travel to New York where he was lionized by the city’s left-leaning intelligentsia. It was in New York he met both Pete Seeger and Huddie Ledbetter. These friendships were central in making folk music shift subtly but significantly from an expression of the realities of life among the disenfranchised to being a politically engaged means of expressing an agenda for change. To put it more bluntly the protest song as we know it was born. He got a well-paid radio job and once again transplanted his family across the country to be with him. Not for the first time, he clashed with the station bosses about what he was or wasn’t permitted to sing or say. After only a few months they all decamped to California.