A Soldier's Story: Private Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie

 


Private Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah Oklahoma. He was raised in a musically talented family and learned to play the guitar and harmonica while very young and, after his mother's hospitalization and his father's move to Texas, he would use his guitar to busk on the streets of Okemah to earn money for food.  He would eventually join his father in Pampas Texas in 1929. 

Private Guthrie spent a few years in Texas, doing odd jobs and busking, but, in 1935, unable to support his wife and children, he would (like many others) make his way to California, where he would began performing on KFVD Los Angeles with Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman. His songs would ultimately become the "voice" of the migrant worker. 

In 1940, Private Guthrie crossed the country to New York, playing small shows with Alan Lomax,  Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and Pete Seeger, then, in 1941, he accepted a job with the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs about the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in Oregon. 

Private Guthrie returned to New York in 1943 and enlisted in the US Merchant Marines.  He deployed three times to the Atlantic Ocean for supply line protection and survived two torpedo attacks.  Private Guthrie also wrote, during his Merchant Marines career,  his autobiography "Bound For Glory" and his magnum opus "This Land Is Your Land".  He would be drafted in the US Army in May of 1945 and briefly served, finishing out WWII.



While he was largely based in New York for the remainder of his life, Private Guthrie would continue to travel and write after the war, despite developing preliminary Huntington's Chorea symptoms (the neurological disease that had hospitalized and taken the life of his mother) by the late 1940s. By 1955, he would require full time hospitalization.  

Despite his confinement, Private Guthrie still wrote and heavily influenced the folk singers of his day, many, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Tom Parker, would regularly seek him out at the hospital. Private Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 and his ashes were scattered on Coney Island. There is also a memorial marker at the Highland Cemetery in Okemah Oklahoma.

He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Association in 1977, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 2000 the Recording Industry Association of America would name "This Land Is Your Land" as the third most important song of the 20th Century.