Family Tree Tuesday – Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie is best known as an American singer-songwriter and folk musician. His musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children’s songs, ballads and improvised works. His best-known song is “This Land Is Your Land.” Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. He frequently performed with the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists displayed on his guitar. Guthrie has been acknowledged as a major influence for songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg and Tom Paxton.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma to Nora Belle and Charles Edward Guthrie. This Saturday, July 14th would have been his 100th birthday. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, who was at the time Governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate soon to be elected President of the United States. Guthrie seemed to have a natural affinity for music and easily learned to “play by ear.” He easily learned old ballads and traditional English & Scots songs from the parents of friends. Although he did not excel as a student, his teachers described him as bright. He had dropped out of high school in his fourth year and did not graduate. He was an avid reader on a wide range of topics.
Many of Guthrie’s songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues songs. Although he seemingly was not a member of any, throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States communist groups.
His most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” was written in February 1940 inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for “God Bless America” as he thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent.
During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan. Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 from complications of Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder.
Although Guthrie’s catalog never brought him many awards while he was alive, in 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1997 was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. He was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children. His second wife was Marjorie Greenblatt, a dancer of the Martha Graham Company and later became a dance teacher opening her own dance school in the late 1940s. Her mother was renowned Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Marjorie founded the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease following the death of her ex-husband, Woody Guthrie, which eventually became the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.
Arlo Guthrie, one of Woody and Marjorie’s children is also an American folk musician. Like his father, Arlo is known for singing songs of protest against social injustice. One of his better known works is “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, a satirical talking blues song about 18 minutes in length. He was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience award on September 26, 1992. Arlo and his wife Jackie’s children Sarah Lee, Cathy and Abe have also become musicians. Sarah Lee performs and records with her husband Johnny Irion. Their music combined Irion’s love of pop music, rock and blues with Guthrie’s roots of folk and country. Cathy plays ukulele in a group named Folk Uke which she formed with Amy Nelson, the daughter of Willie Nelson. Abe was formerly in a folk-rock band called Xavier, and now tours with his father. Abe’s son, Krishna, is a drummer and toured with Arlo Guthrie on his European tour in 2006.
Woody and Marjorie’s daughter Nora Lee Guthrie oversees the Woody Guthrie Foundation located in New York City. She approached English folk/pop singer Billy Bragg in 1995 to create music for some of the many poems that her father wrote but never developed into songs. To help with the project, Bragg enlisted the band Wilco which resulted into two albums titled Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000). The albums were named after the street in Coney Island, New York where Nora Lee lived with her parents as a child. In 2008, Guthrie won a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album for her work as a producer of The Live Wire, a re-engineered release of a live Woody Guthrie concert recorded on a wire recorder. She has continued curating her father’s work for his centennial celebration with the album New Multitudes.
Did you know Woody Guthrie’s recordings in the early 1940s included a “Copyright Warning”? It stated “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” Currently the copyright in much of Woody’s songs is claimed by a number of different organizations.
Check out Woody Guthrie’s family tree!