Woody Guthrie: Biography and Songs

Instructor: Catherine King
Almost every child who has attended public school has at one time heard or sung 'This Land Is Your Land,' an iconic song that was written by Woody Guthrie. In this lesson, we will learn about the life and many songs of Woody Guthrie.

A Musical Icon

Woody Guthrie is remembered as an influential musician and songwriter whose political activism and advocacy for civil rights inspired many others to stand up for their rights and fight back.

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)
Woody Guthrie

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. His parents were Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father was a man of many trades and jobs. He shared with Woody his love of Western and Scottish folk songs. Woody's mother was also interested in music and greatly influenced him.

In his early years in Oklahoma, Woody was constantly faced with loss. The death of his older sister Clara, a string of house fires and his mother's illness and subsequent move to an insane asylum changed Woody's life forever.

The Guthrie House

It's a Hard Life

Okemah had begun as a farming community until oil was discovered in 1920. Almost immediately, the town transformed into a bustling community and economic boom-town. This attracted people from all over who sought their fortune, including some unsavory individuals who chased after gold, oil or money. Eventually the oil dried up, and Okemah was not the growing vibrant town it had been just years before. Most of the townspeople became unemployed and broke. Woody decided during this period that it was time to leave.

Woody traveled to Pampa, Texas, where he married Mary Jennings, the younger sister of one of Woody's musician friends. Woody and Mary were married in 1933 and had three children. The Great Depression was in full swing at that time, which made it difficult for Woody to support his family.

Like many others at that time, he headed West. Traveling and searching for work became Woody's way of life. He traveled, often on foot or hitching rides whenever he could, from Texas to California. It was through these travels that he got to know the migrant workers he would end up writing songs about. He worked odd jobs to make a little money during his travels. He played his guitar and sang in bars and saloons and eventually gained a loyal following, which led to radio appearances. This resulted in an even larger audience. Woody was restless, however, and each success in his musical career seemed to cause him to want to move on.

Woody is famous for his songs about the common man. He identified with the people who struggled in their daily lives. He wanted to stand up for the little guy, fight for civil rights and make his political voice heard. He was against fascism, or dictatorships, and instead supported communist philosophies. This is reflected in many of his songs and even in the slogan he often placed over his guitar: This Machine Kills Fascists.

After the end of Woody's first marriage, he remarried a dancer named Marjorie Mazia and had four more children. The most famous of his children is Arlo Guthrie, himself a renowned singer songwriter. Woody actually remarried a third time years later to Anneke van Kirk and had yet another child.

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