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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 889

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This is the grave of Woody Guthrie.

Born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie’s life is almost as much legend as fact, in no small part because of his own autobiography, Bound for Glory. Guthrie became one of the most important singers in American history. I reject the idea of “folk singer” here because I don’t even know what that means. Guthrie did sing songs of the past, but he was also a tremendously prolific songwriter and an extremely modern one as well.

Named after Woodrow Wilson (this was an era where it was not at all uncommon to name children after prominent politicians of your party and remember that Wilson was only governor of New Jersey at this time), Guthrie grew up in a pretty typical Oklahoma household of the era. His father was a massive racist and leading local Democrat. He was probably involved in a 1911 lynching and was definitely a member of the Ku Klux Klan from 1915 to some date after that. The family had it tough growing up. It was downwardly mobile for one thing but it was also afflicted with disasters. His sister in a fit of rage set her own clothes on fire during a fight with her mother and burned to death. That was in 1919. In 1926, his mother, suffering from what we now know as Huntington’s Disease, was committed to a home for the insane. The next year, his father nearly died in a house fire and suffered major burns. In 1930, his mother died of her disease.

So Guthrie was pretty much on his own from the time he was 15 or so. He had an older brother working in west Texas and he had younger siblings to take care of, which he did the best he could. He was good on a guitar and liked to sing, so he made a few bucks that way, but not much. So he started floating around. He joined his family in west Texas for a bit, mostly busking rather than working. By this time, the Great Depression was hitting and there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs in this area in the years before that either. After all, the farm depression was really from the mid-20s onward. Guthrie married for the first time in 1931. He wasn’t around much. They had three children, two of which would die of Huntington’s Disease, as it is genetic.

Anyway, Guthrie split for California, where he started having some success with his singing. With all the southerners moving to California, country music came with it. Guthrie really wasn’t a country musician per se. He was a Plains musician with a Plains style. It was pre-country, but it wasn’t hillbilly either. It was plaintive, like cowboy music. Not the Hollywood cowboys like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, but actual music sung by cowboys on drives, much of which exists on disc due to later descendants of them, such as Glenn Ohrlin. Having no money of his own, Guthrie rode his share of trains, worked his share of crap jobs, and was made to feel like garbage by California whites resentful of these newcomers. He started to write political songs based on his experiences. They weren’t really revolutionary songs, but they were songs that expressed the frustration of his people, such as “Goin Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” He started getting frequent radio gigs, as he was speaking the language of the people of Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas and Missouri. He made enough money that he brought his family out and started recording what became Dust Bowl Ballads, his early long-play album released in 1940 with songs entirely about that horrible experience.

Guthrie’s political songs got the attention of local socialists (definitely a minority in hard right Los Angeles), including the actor Will Geer. They encouraged him to go to New York to record more. He did, leaving his family behind once again (this constant moving would spur a divorce in 1943). He later claimed he became a Communist in 1936, but there’s no actual evidence of this. He was in spirit though, if not an official Party member. He did have a column in People’s World, after all, though it was more a “man of the people” column than expressing any real politics per se. Pretty lax for the CP in the late 30s.

Guthrie started recording for the folklorist Alan Lomax and in 1941 wrote “This Land is Your Land,” his rejection of the proto-fascism of “God Bless America.” He met Pete Seeger around this time. They became good friends and roommates in New York. He didn’t like it there much at the time, went back to LA, then to Portland. He was just a restless guy. While in Portland, the Department of Interior hired him to write a bunch of songs to promote the damming of the Columbia River. These dams don’t feel progressive today, not with the near-extinction of the salmon, but they were surely part of that world in the early 1940s. This is when he wrote “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and other songs. It’s funny to think as these as folk songs when they were in fact government propaganda written on contract. Not that I have a real problem with that; again, I think the term “folk music” is beyond useless.

Guthrie then joined Seeger in The Almanac Singers, which was a more directly folk group than Guthrie’s previous work. The two of them and the other members, Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, all lived together in communal fashion while they recorded anti-fascist material. Guthrie shirked all his housekeeping duties though, not surprisingly. The other three were all kind of social elites. Guthrie was the authentic touch, or so they all felt, including Woody. He wouldn’t sing songs he thought were dumb or out of his wheelhouse of the Plains and the West. No Tin Pan Alley for Woody. In 1944, Guthrie started recording for Moe Asch. The Asch Recordings, now released on 4 long discs, are probably the most important recording Guthrie did. Although he recorded a relatively small part of his vast repertoire, nothing else gives the variety and broad sense of what he was doing. There were his political songs, sure. But there were also lots of songs of the Plains, kids’ songs, songs about disasters, nonsense songs. This was the mature Guthrie. Just the year before, Bound for Glory had been published, with a lot of help from ghostwriters and editors, to widespread acclaim. I actually don’t care for it much. Guthrie was well-known, including in his People’s World columns, for writing in a local dialect-style, which I find hard to read and not very valuable. So much of the autobiography is taken up by him playing as a child of the Plains and other than showing him as a Boy of the People, it doesn’t do much work. The book is more interesting during his adulthood, but it’s still not a favorite of mine.

Guthrie did what he could to perform for soldiers during World War II, though the military was suspicious of the leftist singer. He was actually at D-Day, on a ship that was hit by a torpedo off Utah Beach, but it must not have been a direct hit because no one died and it limped back to England. He had remarried and had four more children, one of which died in a fire (lot of that in Guthrie’s life) and which included Arlo and Nora, the former of whom became a folk legend of the hippie generation and the latter the caretaker of her father’s legacy. He moved to New York, wrote like a fiend, and was quite productive, recording an album of children’s music in 1947, among other things. As his second wife Marjorie was Jewish (his mother in law was the well-known Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt), he embraced that religion (unusual for a guy from small town Oklahoma) and recorded several Jewish-themed songs in his later years.

But Guthrie was always an irascible sort. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was a young Jewish kid from Brooklyn then known as Elliot Adnopoz, who looked up to Guthrie. Elliott later remembered just what an asshole Guthrie could be and stated that he was about his only friend at times because no one else could stand him. As everyone know doubt knows, this was probably at least partially caused and most certainly exacerbated by the Huntington’s Disease he inherited from his mother. Luckily, he did not pass it down to the kids from his second marriage, though his two daughters from his first would both die of it in the 1970s. His mother was never properly diagnosed, but being in New York, he was, after several years of declining health and erratic behavior, in 1952. He lost his ability to play guitar soon after due to a fire (the Guthrie family really should stay away from all flames). He married yet again and had another child. It did not last long. His third wife hadn’t signed up to care for a cranky dying man.

By 1956, Guthrie was in the hospital. Jack Elliott took care of him more or less. He also was the conduit between Guthrie and the rising folk scene of the 1960s. When Bob Dylan came to New York, he desperately wanted to meet Guthrie and he did, but it was Elliott who taught him how to do the music properly. Not that this led the little twerp to treating his mentor with any respect after he had become DYLAN and got big. By 1965, Guthrie had lost the ability to speak. His second wife Marjorie used his illness to establish what has become the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. What a nasty, awful, horrible way to go. Guthrie finally, and mercifully really, died in 1967. He was 55 years old. That’s actually a pretty long life for Huntington’s. Both his daughters were 41 when they died.

Guthrie wrote about 1,000 songs. Only a small fraction were recorded. Several projects have emerged of modern artists putting his words to music, including the two albums of Wilco and Billy Bragg, as well as a Del McCoury Band project and a Klezmatics album. They have shown that his great words can work in a variety of musical settings. In fact, there’s a brand new cover version of Dust Bowl Ballads that features Waxahatchee, Chris Thile, Mark Lanegan, Lee Ann Womack, and others. Guthrie continues to inspire songwriters today and probably will for a very long time to come.

In conclusion, “This Land is Your Land” should be the national anthem, especially the verse where he dismisses private property.

Let’s listen to some Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie is buried in Highland Cemetery, Okemah, Oklahoma. There’s not much in Okemah today. There’s an annual Woody Guthrie Festival there, which must be the only thing that happens there, as most of the town’s shops are boarded up.

This was the 7th grave I’ve written up of the 64 I visited on my recent trip to the south central part of this nation. As you can imagine, I was very, very excited for this one. It was my second stop after I flew into Oklahoma City, my first naturally enough being BBQ. If you would like this series to visit other musicians who worked in the scene with Guthrie during these years, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Leadbelly is in Mooringsport, Louisiana and his old touring partner Cisco Houston is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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