Despite its widespread adoption as an American anthem “This Land is Your Land” was penned by an itinerant, anti-establishment drifter with a penchant for alcohol and a track record of serial adultery – hardly the trappings of a positive role model for youngsters. Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie was born today in 1912.
Folk singer Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, USA and began his years of travelling across the USA at the age of sixteen - surviving by taking a string of casual jobs and living the life of a railroad hobo, hopping freight trains from State to State.
His first-hand experiences of Depression-era America would form not only a left-leaning political conviction but also a fertile source of his social commentary –in the form of written pieces, cartoons and painting. However it’s for his songwriting and performing that Woody would become famous – spitting out lyrics backed by his own rudimentary guitar.
After a first stab at radio work in Los Angeles, Guthrie began to make his mark as a politically-motivated entertainer once relocating to New York City in 1940. Coming to the attention of musicologist Alan Lomax and recorded songs and spoken words sessions for the Library of Congress archives, Guthrie proved to be astonishingly prolific and repopularised the folk song as a document of contemporary working class life.
Tapping into an alternative scene that embraced Peter Seeger, the Weavers and Leadbelly, Woody performed his material regularly at political rallies, penned articles for a Communist newspaper and even completed an autobiography “Bound For Glory” in 1943. Serving in the US Navy between 1943 and 1945 saw Guthrie spend time in Europe (inevitably prompting a further raft of material), but following his return, he began to suffer from health issues exacerbated by a poor lifestyle and drinking.
Belatedly diagnosed with Huntington’s chorea (a genetic degenerative disorder of the nervous system that his mother had died from), Woody was hospitalised and made fewer and fewer public appearances – a star-struck Bob Dylan trekking to meet him and crediting him as a major inspiration in his work.
Since his death in October 1967, the legend of Woody has continued to grow, with all-star tribute concerts to him staged and recorded in both 1968 and 1970. A film was made of his autobiography in 1976 and election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed in 1988 – recognising the debt that countless performers since Dylan owed to him.
And with a photo of Guthrie brandishing a guitar with the motto “This Machine Kills Fascists” assuming an iconic status on a par with Johnny Cash’s one fingered salute, the collaboration between rock band Wilco and political songwriter Billy Bragg to record unpublished Woody songs proved to be an inspired one.
Mentored by Woody’s daughter Nora, the fruits of the sessions appeared on two volumes of “Mermaid Avenue” albums – the title a reference to the address of the family home in Atlantic City.
Check out our new in-depth feature on Woody Guthrie and purchase CDs below:
And here’s some rare footage of Woody in action: