Woody Guthrie, considered by most to be the father of American Folk music, was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, OK, July 14, 1912. For the majority of his youth, Woody was raised on hard times due to a terrible fire which destroyed the Guthrie family home and killed his sister Clara. Despite this, Woody was considered a happy child, known as the town jester. He was a scraggly kid often seen laughing and dancing in the streets to his own harmonica music. He never finished his formal education, but loved learning and knowledge. Woody was exposed to a number of different music styles by the tender age of four, most originating from his grandparents and neighbors, but some influence came from the field workers and local Native American villages.
After he dropped out of school around age thirteen or fourteen, he left home to wander the area, using his harmonica as entertainment on the road, or as a source of extra cash. He wound up in Pampa, TX, where he discovered the true extent of his musical talent. Here he formed a trio with his close friends, Matt Jennings and Clive Barker. Their music had a wry sense of humour; Woody preferred to play feel good songs celebrating life instead of music that wallowed in self- indulgence.
Woody married Matt Jennings’ sister, Mary, in 1933 at the age of 21. Soon after, tragedy struck his own young family as he was forced out of his home in Texas by a series of natural disasters. He packed up and hit the road with other travelers like himself from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, hoping to find opportunity in the promised land of California. This experience colored his rosy perspective for the remainder of his life. California turned out to be the land of exploitation, not opportunity. During this time, Woody wrote hundreds of songs about migrant workers, demonstrating a deep love for them and the lands they traveled.
In the late ‘30s, Woody landed a job in LA, hosting his own radio show. It was during this time that he began to get involved in union activities. Apparently, he had seen and written about enough injustice to finally get up and do something about it.
He became fed up with LA and soon moved to New York with an actor friend, Will Greer. But, wanderlust ran strong in Woody, and he quickly decided to hit the road again, shuffling between the Pacific Northwest, LA, and New York. After being subject to too many years of Woody’s moves, his wife finally gave up and left him, taking their children and returning to LA permanently.
In 1940, Woody met and married Marjorie Mazia, a dancer in the Martha Graham Troupe. They had a baby girl, Cathy. In 1946, Cathy was killed in an electric fire, leaving Woody heartbroken; he was never the same.
The early 1950s found Woody Guthrie in a state of mental deterioration. He began to behave erratically, couldn’t control his playing, or remember things. He left Marjorie to run away to California where he got involved with a woman twenty years his junior, obtaining a quickie Mexican divorce from Marjorie and remarrying Anneke almost instantly. They had a baby who was put up for adoption. Due to his mental state, he was eventually forced to return to Marjorie in New York and spent the rest of his days in and out of hospitals, nursed by her.
Woody Guthrie died of the mind- deteriorating Huntington’s disease, the same disease that killed his mother, on October 3, 1967.