The iconic Woody Guthrie was more than just a singer-songwriter of a flurry of musical material that influenced some of the top names in show business. As an American folk music superstar, he often recorded and released songs that took stabs at political and social issues that are still every bit as touchy today as it was when he first burst onto the music scene in 1930. He was approximately eighteen years old at the time. Some of his best work includes his infamous Dust Bowl Ballads, heavily influencing and inspiring listeners with tunes that catered to the genres of children, country, and folk. Artists such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen all contribute their successful careers as recording artists to Guthrie himself.
Before the Fame
Before becoming one of the world’s best-known recording artists and social activists, Guthrie was born and raised in small-town Oklahoma, named after the Democrat Party’s Woodrow Wilson after he won the American presidency in 1912. This was the same year Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born. He had a sister, Clara, but she lost her life after setting her clothing on fire while engaging in an argument with her mother. Woody Guthrie was only seven years old at the time. In 1927, a fire at home severely burned Guthrie’s father. As for Guthrie’s mother, she was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease and was committed to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane as the family was not aware of this condition at the time. All they saw were signs of dementia and muscular degeneration before understanding what it was she was dealing with. She died in that hospital due to complications of the disease in 1930.
During this time frame, the father was working and residing in Pampa, Texas, to pay off debts. Woody and his siblings were on their own, relying on each other for support as they each struggled to make ends meet. For Woody, he befriended an African-American blues musician who used his harmonica as a means to make a living. Inspired, Woody began to do the same and play with him. For Woody, after realizing he made a better musician than he did as a high school student, dropped out a year before he was due to graduate.
When Guthrie’s father invited him to Texas in 1929, a now eighteen-year-old Woody spent most of his time learning songs and busking on the streets. At nineteen, he married his first wife before leaving her and their three children in favor of finding employment in California. While there, he played hillbilly music for a Los Angeles radio station and wrote a column in a communist-favoring newspaper, People’s World.
The political and social influence of his father rubbed off on Woody as he wrote and performed musical material that went against the political views of the radio station he worked for. As a result, he moved back to Oklahoma, then to New York, which became his home base while writing and recording the album, Dust Bowl Ballads. Released in 1940, it covered Woody’s personal life experiences while growing up in the 1930s. This is where Woody Guthrie earned the nickname “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”
When Guthrie first arrived in New York, he stayed as a guest of actor Will Geer. Fans of The Waltons will remember him as Zebulon Walton, who played the grandfather in one of America’s most beloved television series of all time. Like Guthrie, Geer was not shy to share his political and social opinions. It would be out of Geer’s apartment that Woody Guthrie made the first of his long list of recordings. Along with the assistance of Alan Lomax, a series of songs were recorded for the Library of Congress, which was also featured in the album, Dust Bowl Ballads.
In 1940, “This Land Is Your Land” was a song Woody Guthrie wrote after he felt Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was experiencing far too much playtime on the radio. However, it wouldn’t be until 1944 that it would be recorded and released. By this time, Guthrie was already somewhat famous after his time with the radio station in L.A., shortly before moving to New York. Dust Bowl Ballads, along with “This Land Is Your Land,” catapulted his name and career to what would become legendary status.
1940 also marked the year Woody Guthrie met with fellow folksinger, Pete Seeger while the two played at a benefit to raise money for migrant farm workers. Both men became good friends as their respective careers continued to blossom. It would also be in 1940 that he hosted the Pipe Smoking Time radio program, making enough money to move his wife and family to live in New York City with him. However, his time with the radio station ended after his seventh broadcast due to creative differences. This prompted Woody Guthrie to relocate to California, taking his family with him, before opting to move to Portland, Oregon instead in 1941.
Originally, he was to partake in a twelve-month filmmaking project that revolved around a documentary featuring the construction of federal dams along the Columbia River. However, Guthrie’s role was downsized from narrator to songwriter about the river for the state’s Department of the Interior. He was given one month to accomplish this task, which resulted in twenty-six songs written, recorded, and released as Columbia River Songs. Three of the best-known songs from the documentary’s soundtracks were “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.” In 1949, Columbia River was finally released as a documentary film, illustrating the government-funded and operated dams and projects along the river that stretched between Oregon and Washington. The reason why it took so long to publish was due to the events that took place during World War II.
Come November 1941, Guthrie was introduced to Charles Olson, the man whose Spring 1942 issue of Common Ground Magazine became Guthrie’s debut article as a mainstream writer. However, Guthrie’s desire to return to New York City after completing his month-long Columbia River project, had him make his return. He did this without his second wife and children accompanying him as they were fed up with the constant moving around. Shortly after Guthrie returned to New York, he worked with Sophie Maslow, who premiered the staged dance performance, Folksay, in the Guthrie at the Humphrey Studio Theatre. In 1944, it became a televised performance, then again in 1945. Maslow’s choreography was teamed up with Guthrie’s musical score.
Together, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger formed the Almanac Singers, a group that used a loft in New York City as its base of operations, performing concerts titled “Hootenannies.” This eventually moved to Greenwich Village, the location where Guthrie performed a series of peaceful protest songs while the Nazi-Soviet Pact was in place. The material changed to anti-fascist songs after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. As idealists, the Almanac Singers and residents of the Almanac House wrote and shared songs among themselves. During a timeline when New Yorkers were mostly made up of members of the Jewish community, Woddy Guthrie became an important figure in the world of American folk music. Instead of producing music from an intellectual’s point of view, Guthrie did so as an ordinary, working-class human being. This was really evident in People’s Songs, a project founded in 1945 by Pete Seeger that provided bookings and newsletters for labor singers.
In addition to his impressive songwriting history, Woody Guthrie wrote a flurry of poems and prose, most of which were penned while he lived in New York City. It was while in New York he worked with a dance instructor named Marjorie Mazia. Together, the two wrote and published Bound for Glory, an autobiography that revolved around the life story of Woody Guthrie. In 1975, David Carradine starred in the book’s award-winning movie adaptation, including 1976’s Academy Award for Original Music Score.
According to Guthrie, he felt his best work as an anti-fascist poet and singer-songwriter came during the era of World War II. When the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations teamed up in a collaborated radio production, the National Broadcasting Corporation agreed to run a weekly public service segment on the air. The first show, Labor for Victory, was aired on Saturday, April 25, 1942. In addition to using the show as a means to address the public with information, it also sought to keep them entertained.
This is where Woody Guthrie came in as he performed some of the most memorable American folk music. When his attempt to convince the United States military to avoid being drafted into the army failed, his friends persuaded him to join the U.S. Merchant Marine. Together, they traveled in the same convoy ships during the Battle of the Atlantic. When Guthrie wasn’t performing duties in the mess kitchen, he entertained the crew.
While aboard the SS Sea Porpoise, Guthrie and his crewmen were en route to France to partake in the D-Day invasion. It was torpedoed by a Germany’s U-390 submarine on July 5, 1944, just outside Utah Beach, forcing it to return to England for repairs, then back to the United States. Events such as this, as well as his support for the National Maritime Union, inspired Woody Guthrie to write several songs and poems as he shared his experiences and views. By 1945, the United States government felt Guthrie’s association with communists was enough to disqualify him from serving on the Merchant Marine any longer.
He would be drafted into the U.S. Army instead. It would be while he was on furlough he married Marjorie Mazia. After he was discharged, the couple moved to Coney Island and had four children. When one of their daughters, Cathy, perished in a fire at the age of four years old, a distraught Guthrie sank into depression. As for his surviving children from his second marriage, they each became singer-songwriters themselves.
Woody Guthrie Legacy
When World War II was over, Woody Guthrie poured himself into songwriting. He soon became a mentor for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who later mentored Bob Dylan, using what he learned from Guthrie. The same was said about Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son. As for Guthrie, he simply stated everything he learned came from Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Unfortunately for Woody, his health began to steadily decline that suggesting he was experiencing a bout of alcoholism and schizophrenia. However, it would be in 1952 it would be discovered he inherited the same genetic disorder his mother had, Huntington’s Disease. It would be this same disease that took the lives of his two daughters from his first marriage.
As a concerned mother of three children, Marjorie suggested Woody leave his family behind and move to California. The couple later divorced in 1953. When he first returned to California, he resided at the Theatricum Botanicum theatre which was owned by his friend, Will Geer. At the time, both of these men were on the blacklist of the entertainment industry during a political era that had very little tolerance for communist-favoring activists. When the industry began to ease off with its restrictions, Woody Guthrie and his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk, took their child with them to live on a bus in Beluthahatchee, Florida.
On one fateful evening, Guthrie’s arm sustained permanent injury due to an explosion while attempting to start a campfire. The extent of Guthrie’s injuries, along with the inability to ever play the guitar again, took its toll on his third marriage and the couple divorced. Their daughter was put up for adoption by his ex-wife who later died in 1973 at the age of nineteen. She would become the second of Guthrie’s two children to perish in an automobile accident. Bill Guthrie, his son from his first marriage, perished in 1962 from an automobile accident involving a train.
Over time, Woody Guthrie’s bout with Huntington’s Disease saw an increase in its volatile symptoms that had him hospitalized from 1956 until the day of his death on October 3, 1967. Twenty years prior to this, he wrote House of Earth, which was a historical novel from the Dust Bowl era. Because it featured sexually explicit material, he was not able to get this book published. This wouldn’t happen until 2013, thanks to Johnny Depp’s Infinitum Nihil publishing imprint. In addition to his passion for writing, Guthrie also enjoyed painting and sketching, often using his own music as a source of inspiration.
There are nineteen albums to Woody Guthrie’s credit, along with seventy-one songs for the 1940 Library of Congress of Washington D.C.
#10 – Union Maid
While with the Almanac Singers, “Union Maid” was a song that was written and performed by Woody Guthrie. Of all the creative content that came from this group of entertainers, this was the song the community strictly credited Guthrie so that his children would receive the residuals and royalties. The inspiration behind this song influenced artists such as Bobbie McGee, covering this great classic about the dedication of an organization that puts the welfare of everyday workers as a line of defense against corporate greed.
#9 – Pastures of Plenty
1941’s “Pastures of Plenty” was a song Woody Guthrie wrote about the twentieth-century migrant workers of North America. Based on the ballad of “Pretty Polly,” this American folk classic had John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, as a source of inspiration.
#8 – Do Re Mi
“Do Re Mi” was one of the many songs Woody Guthrie sang about that revolved around the migrants of the Dust Bowl era. It was included in his 1940 album, Dust Bowl Ballads, as a lyrical warning to wannabe migrants to stay put where they are as there were not enough resources further west to properly sustain them. This song paralleled John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In the tale, a migrant family opted to venture from Oklahoma to California, hoping for a better life when they meet a fellow migrant who urged them to turn back and go home. Despite sharing his tale of misfortune, the family ignored the warnings and continued, only to find out they should have listened.
#7 – Which Side Are You On?
Woody Guthrie made a career out of writing and recording songs that reflected his views on political and social matters that struck a chord with him. When it came to the Ludlow Massacre that witnessed the Colorado National Guard strike down coal miners and their families, Guthrie lyrically voiced “Which Side Are You On?” in 1941. This was his lyrical challenge to convince the workers to unite as one instead of allowing employers to come between them in the name of dubious agendas. Inspirational, this protest song was covered many times over by a long list of artists, including Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and The Clash.
#6 – Crawdad Song
Originally recorded by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, “Crawdad Song” was a 1940 cover performed by Woody Guthrie. The tale revolved around a man attempting to catch crayfish in a creek, which Guthrie turned into an easygoing, sing-along classic featured on the album, Muleskinner Blues.
#5 – Grand Coulee Dam
While Woody Guthrie was commissioned to write songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941, “Grand Coulee Dam” was one of the twenty-six songs the artist wrote within a month’s timeline for a documentary film featuring the Columbia River and its waterwork projects. It became part of the Columbia River Ballads soundtrack, which was purposely designed to earn public support in favor of federally regulating hydroelectricity. Based on “The Wabash Cannonball,” “Grand Coulee Dam” was not only featured in the documentary in 1949 but on the album, Bound for Glory in 1956. Two years later, British musician Lonnie Donegan released a version of this as a pop single, which became a number six hit on the UK Official Singles Chart.
#4 – Roll On, Columbia, Roll On
Written in 1941 but not published until 1949, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On” was an American folk song written and recorded by Woodie Guthrie. The song promoted the Columbia River, which Guthrie was commissioned by the government to write songs about for a month as they embarked on the eleven hydroelectric dams that were built along with it as a means to help the farming industry and their communities. “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On” became a popular anthem about the various public works projects the United States government embarked on since the Great Depression.
As of 1987, it became the State of Washington’s official folk song. The inspiration behind this song revolved around turning darkness into dawn through the harnessing technology of the waterworks along the Columbia River. The discovery and exploitation of electricity along the river not only gave homeowners access to light at night but the promise of a future that was bright enough to look forward to at the time.
#3 – So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”
Originally titled “Dusty Old Dust,” the apocalyptic “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” was a song Woody Guthrie first released in 1935. It also became part of his highly acclaimed album, Dust Bowl Ballads. Regarded as one of Guthrie’s best songs as an American folk artist, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” defined his portrayal as a hard-working, yet struggling common man. It became one of the seventy-one songs to be inducted into the Library of Congress in 1940 and is regarded as one of the best he’s ever written and recorded.
Based on Carson Robison’s “Ballad of Billy the Kid” from the 1930s, Guthrie’s modified version of the song spoke about the American Great Depression. He also sang about the farms devastated by the Dust Bowl. While living in Pampa, Texas, Guthrie personally witnessed April 14, 1935’s Black Sunday dust storm that swept across the region. Although the song was written and recorded in 1935, it didn’t become popularized until 1951 as The Weavers covered their slightly altered version of this classic. For them, it became a number-four hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 after it was released as a single.
#2 – I Ain’t Got No Home
1940’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” became one of Woody Guthrie’s best-known songs after it was recorded and released as part of the Dust Bowl Ballads collection of tunes. The reflection of the struggles the Americans faced during the era of the Great Depression witnessed a rather opinionated view of Guthrie’s take on the gospel-style mentality he felt was inappropriate given the situation that gripped the nation at the time. This song was incredibly inspirational for artists such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen as each of them recorded their own versions of this classic cult favorite. As a social commentary, “I Ain’t Got Not Home” became one of Guthrie’s signature songs that rightfully earns his name as one of America’s all-time greats as an influential singer-songwriter.
#1 – This Land Is Your Land
For Woody Guthrie, no song has best defined the man as America’s finest folk artist than “This Land Is Your Land.” Fed up with the continual play of “God Bless America,” Guthrie retaliated with “This Land Is Your Land,” using the melodies of “Oh, My Loving Brother.” Originally, it was first titled “God Blessed America” in 1940. The wording was slightly different come 1944, as well as the title, which served as Guthrie’s signature song that has become the most recognizable part of his legacy. “This Land Is Your Land” became so much more than just a song. It became part of America’s identity as a nation and remains one of the most significant contributions to the nation’s history. Scores of artists have covered this song from various genres and talent levels. It remains an all-time favorite as a song of appreciation towards a nation that has been great all along, even if not every American has chosen to see it that way. It served and still serves as a great protest song, putting the love of one’s nation ahead of personal agendas.
Top 10 Woody Guthrie Songsarticle published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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