Born: July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma
Died: Oct. 3, 1967 in New York City, New York
Woody Guthrie was an American folksinger and songwriter whose songs chronicled the plight of common people, especially during the Great Depression. Some have suggested that his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Musicians that he mentored include Bob Dylan and his son, Arlo Guthrie.
Politics ran in Guthrie’s blood. He was the son of a onetime cowboy, land speculator, and local Democratic politician who named him Woodrow Wilson Guthrie after President Woodrow Wilson.
Guthrie grew up near the relocated Creek nation in Okemah, Oklahoma, a small agricultural and railroad town that boomed in the 1920s with the discovery of oil, then went bust in time for the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Observing other people’s hardships, along with the calamities that befell his splintering family, sensitized Guthrie to others’ suffering, as related in his autobiographical novel Bound for Glory (1943). Guthrie learned traditional folk and blues songs while traveling with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Guthrie’s politics became increasingly leftist, and by the time he moved to New York City in 1940 he had become an important musical spokesman for labour and populist sentiments, embraced by left-leaning intellectuals and courted by communists. In New York, to which he had brought his family, Guthrie became one of the principal songwriters for the Almanac Singers, a group of activist performers — including Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Cisco Houston — who used their music to attack fascism and support humanitarian and leftist causes.” The words “This machine kills fascists” were even displayed on Guthrie’s guitar.
In 1941, Guthrie traveled to the Pacific Northwest, where he was commissioned to write songs in support of federal dam building and electrification projects. One of the resulting songs, “Roll On Columbia,” was later adopted as Washington State’s official folk song. However, the song has a nuclear twist.