- 29 Aug 12
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.
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.
He was commissioned to write about the construction of the Coulee dam and moved to Oregon and Washington State for a brief but creatively rich period. However when his contract expired he wanted to return to New York. Sick of the traveling Mary told him to go on his own. In New York once more he re-established his connection with Seeger and joined his Almanac Singers. While there he met and married Marjorie Mazia with whom he had four children. During the Second World War he tried to convince the US administration to let him support the war effort by performing for the troops. With his leftist politics they were never going to allow it and he joined the merchant marine along with his friends Jim Longhi and Cisco Houston.
After WWII he moved to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island and wrote prolifically, penning, among other projects, two albums of songs for children. He took Ramblin’ Jack Elliott under his wing at this time. It was from Elliott rather than Woody himself that the Guthrie-obsessed Bob Dylan learned most of his performance skills. Tragically the same degenerative disease that killed his mother had started to afflict him, making performance difficult. The disease affected him mentally as well as physically and he would fly into fits of temper. Marjorie, worried about the children, asked him to leave and they divorced. Woody moved back to California for a time, where he met and married his third wife Anneke. With the disease taking hold, the marriage faltered and she too left. Back in New York Marjorie cared for him until he had to be hospitalised and he spent the last 10 years of his life in institutions, with few visitors apart from his family and Bob Dylan. Bob used to go and sing his own songs to him even though Guthrie berated him for it as often as not.
It was a sad end but he left a treasure trove behind. Marjorie kept and archived the thousands of lyric he wrote in Mermaid Avenue. His daughter Nora has been placing them with performers like Billy Bragg, Wilco, Yim Yames and Will Johnson. They are heirs to his creative legacy as much as his own children, carrying his work into a century he wouldn’t live to see.