On his 100th birthday, we remember the Western folk hero who gave America an alternative national anthem and changed music forever.
Photography: Woody Guthrie Archives
The small, scrappy tramp wandered onto the Broadway stage, his sweat-stained cowboy hat cocked back, hiding a mound of wayward hair. “Howdy,” he said, squinting into the spotlight as he stood in front of a fabricated tar paper shack. He scratched his head with a guitar pick then brought it down upon the strings of his borrowed Martin and started wailing about hard times, hard traveling, and hard working out West.
Okemah, Oklahoma, hosts The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival July 11 – 15. Check www.woodyguthrie.org or call 914.241.3844 for more on the festival and other tribute events.
It was March 3, 1940, and the Forrest Theater was hosting a benefit concert for the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers. Second on the bill was a man who referred to himself as “The Dustiest of the Dust Bowlers,” a 28-year-old Okie who had hitchhiked to New York just a couple of months earlier.
Standing in the wings of the stage was Alan Lomax, the assistant director of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. When Woody started playing, Lomax, who had dedicated his life to preserving the last traces of the country’s folk music heritage, perked up. He knew he had found something that he had come to believe only existed in legends. He was standing a few feet away from the last great American folk hero.
When we looked out next morning, we saw a terrible sight. /
We saw outside our window where wheat fields they had grown / Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.
Charley and Nora Guthrie gave birth to Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. Woody would later refer to his hometown as “one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.”
Woody would often hear his father singing spirituals and chants he had learned from his African-American and American Indian friends and neighbors, and Nora soothed the boy with songs she had learned growing up in Tennessee — Scottish and Irish ballads from her mother and grandmother, as well as the multicultural songs of the South.
“My mother was an ear musician,” Woody later wrote. “Songs meant a lot to her and she collected hundreds of them in her head, and she chorded on the piano and sung tales and stories that taught me the history of our section of the country, its weather, cyclones, pretty women, love affairs, outlaws, disasters, and hopes for the better world that’s coming.”
Woody (left) with his mother, father, and brother George.
“By learning those songs, Woody was the far end of Elizabethan ballad tradition,” says Billy Bragg, a British musician and activist who worked with Woody’s daughter Nora to record three albums of Woody’s previously unreleased lyrics. “These were songs that made it across the ocean, came down through Appalachia, into the Plains, and ended up in the Oklahoma hills.” As eclectic as his interest grew, Woody’s music would always stay rooted in those rural tunes that survived with the same pioneering spirit as those who brought them to America.
Young Woody soaked it all up and found even more musical inspiration as soon as he started roaming around town. Boomers and roughnecks flocked to the former Creek Indian settlement seeking their fortune, and Woody’s appetite for their far-flung melodies and regional lyrics was insatiable. “He grew up in the boomtown era when people were coming through and singing on the streets, looking for change and trying to entertain each other in the saloons,” says Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son and fellow folk musician. “He wandered around and just fell in love with the idea that he could play music.”
He saw music as a “hoping machine” that got him through hard times, and because of Charley’s inability to keep a job and Nora’s mental deterioration due to Huntington’s disease, he needed it plenty. There were mysterious incidents linked to Nora’s erratic behavior, but it wasn’t until Charley woke up from a nap one day to find himself covered in flames, his wife standing over him, that Nora was taken away to the state mental hospital where she would spend the rest of her life.
Woody kept his mother’s spirit alive by learning how to play the guitar and singing her old ballads. He eventually started playing well enough to form the Corncob Trio and joined a local cowboy band. The dream then was simple: make music and have a good time. “When you see a photo of Woody in the cowboy band, they’re in their chaps and hats, you see a photo like that and you realize, this is a man who was bent on having some fun,” Arlo says. “He wasn’t making political points; he just wanted to party.”
The young musician was settling in nicely, but he was never comfortable with the idea of staying in one place. As his talent developed, he started to see music as a new kind of hope — a ticket out of Okie territory. The perfect excuse to leave came on April 14, 1935, when a dark wall of dust reaching to the sky engulfed the town, burying fields and homes in a thick cloak of dirt.