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Woody Guthrie: From Sea to Shining Sea

Published: 7/14/2012
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Woody Guthrie (Wikimedia Commons / New York World-Telegram and the Sun / Al Aumuller)

One hundred years ago today, July 14, 1912, a folk music legend was born. His career took him from sea to shining sea, chronicling mid-century America like no other musician before or since. He sang about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the working class and war, the city, the wilderness, and the beauty of the country he called home. He was Woody Guthrie.

Though we could easily share 100 facts about Guthrie for his 100th birthday, we will limit ourselves to just a few. Here are 10 things you may (or may not) know about the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," plus a few of our favorite Guthrie songs.

1. He was named for a president. The singer's strong political leanings were never a secret, and perhaps they were influenced in part by his parents, who named him Woodrow Wilson Guthrie for the man who would be elected president just a few months after Guthrie's birth.

2. He traveled with the Okies. A native of Oklahoma, Guthrie saw the beginnings of the Dust Bowl in his home state, and he joined the thousands who migrated to California in search of work. He was a young man, barely out of his teens, and the hard conditions had a strong influence on his later work.

3. He worked with other greats. Guthrie spent a period of time living and recording with fellow folk legend Pete Seeger and his Almanac Singers – Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, and others. The group wrote music, lived in socialistic fashion, and hosted "hootenannys" – weekly concerts where they shared their music and ideals, as well as collected money for rent.

4. He was a Communist… sort of. Guthrie was never a member of the Communist party, but he agreed with many of its ideals. Though it wasn't an unusual belief system in 1930s America, it became more and more unpopular as tensions in Europe ramped up. Guthrie's loose affiliation with the party ended up costing him his World War II job in the Merchant Marine, which led to his being drafted by the U.S. Army. He didn't particularly want to serve, not because he was anti-American (he was strongly anti-fascist), but because he felt he could best serve the war effort at home, singing and writing for the public.

5. He was a newspaper columnist. The newspaper was as unconventional as Guthrie was – The Daily Worker, newspaper of the Communist party – and his column was unusual even for a paper known for bucking tradition. Rather than write about politics and party platform, Guthrie used his "Woody Sez" column to riff on current events in an exaggerated hillbilly dialect. He also drew the occasional cartoon.

6. His first recordings were made for the Library of Congress. Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded hours of Guthrie singing and talking as part the massive Archive of American Folk Song. The year was 1940 and Guthrie had been playing for years, but this was the first time his music was made permanent.

7. He didn't care much for copyrights. Guthrie's socialist and communist leanings extended to his distaste for copyright law. In a booklet of lyrics and chords to his early songs, he wrote, "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."

8. He wrote his most famous song because he was bored with Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie was tired of hearing Berlin's patriotic – but boring and unrealistic, in his opinion – "God Bless America" on the radio. In response, he wrote a song originally titled "God Blessed America for Me," then renamed "This Land is Your Land." Sung to the tune of an old Baptist hymn, the song celebrates the natural beauty of the U.S. – and takes a few digs at the concept of private property. Today, Guthrie's composition is probably known just as well as – if not better than – "God Bless America," and campaigns to make it our national anthem crop up from time to time.

9. Illness and an accident destroyed his livelihood – and his life. The neurodegenerative genetic disorder Huntington's disease took his mother's life and began affecting Guthrie's own health – both physical and mental – before he was 40. Not long after, a campfire accident damaged his arm so badly that he could no longer play guitar. Guthrie spent the last 11 years of his life in psychiatric hospitals due to the effects of Huntington's. A bright spot in those years was a regular visitor – the young folk singer Bob Dylan, who idolized Guthrie and was greatly influenced by him.

10. His musical talent lives on in new generations. Guthrie was the father of eight children, including famous folkie Arlo Guthrie. And the legacy continues in Woody's granddaughter, Arlo's daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie. She performs and records with her husband, Johnny Irion, carrying on the family tradition of playing fine folk music.

Written by Linnea Crowther

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