Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Woody Guthrie: Oklahoma Cowboy

Woody Guthrie was the most important figure in the history of American folk music. Guthrie was more than a singer and musician. He was a real-life incarnation of John Steinbeck’s character, Tom Joad, from “The Grapes of Wrath” and a committed left-wing political activist.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912. When he was fourteen, he began playing the guitar and harmonica and learned the English and Scottish folk songs from the parents of his friends. Despite being a bright student, Guthrie dropped out of high school and started busking on the streets. When he was eighteen, his father ordered him to come to Texas to attend school, but Guthrie spent his time in Texas busking and reading in the library.  By 1930, Guthrie joined thousands of other “Okies” (Oklahomans) who were migrating to California to search for work and escape the “dust bowl” drought that plagued Oklahoma.

In California, Guthrie worked odd jobs, and by the end of the Thirties, he had managed to land a job playing folk and “hillbilly” music on the radio. At this time, he wrote the songs that would later become his legendary collection of “dustbowl ballads.” In 1936, he began to perform at communist party events in California, and although he never joined the party, he would later be tagged as a communist.

By the Forties, Guthrie was in New York City, and his “Oklahoma cowboy” nickname and reputation endeared him to the leftist folk music community in the city. He recorded his album, “Dust Bowl Ballads” (1940), for Victor Records shortly after his arrival. The album has long been hailed as a superb document of an episode of American history as related by a man who lived it. Guthrie also recorded for Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress, singing and speaking about his adventures during the dust bowl period of ten years before.

Guthrie landed another radio job in New York City, this time as the host of the “Pipe Smoking Time” show which was sponsored by a tobacco company. He also appeared on CBS radio on the program, “Back Where I Came From.” Guthrie managed to get a spot on the show for his friend, the legendary African-American folk singer, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter.

By 1941, Guthrie was in Washington State to write and perform songs about the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in the employ of the American Department of the Interior. Guthrie wrote 26 songs for a film which was to be produced about the project, but the film never came to fruition. The songs, “Pastures of Plenty” and “Grand Coulee Dam” would become famous nonetheless.

In 1944, Guthrie met Moses Asch of Folkways Records for whom Guthrie would record hundreds of songs including perhaps his best known tune, “This Land is Your Land.” Folkways would later release these songs in various collections.

By the mid-Fifties, Guthrie’s health was deteriorating with the onset of Huntington’s disease. He was eventually bedridden in Bellevue Hospital, in New York City and in 1960, was visited by a very young and awestruck admirer, Bob Dylan. Guthrie languished in Bellevue hospital until his death in 1967.

Guthrie’s work is best heard via the albums, “Dust Bowl Ballads” (1940), “Bound for Glory” (1956), “Library of Congress Recordings” (1964), “Bed on the Floor” (1965), and “This Land is Your Land” (1967).

That machine kills fascists!

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