Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the second-born son of Charles & Nora Belle Guthrie. His father a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, & Scottish folk tunes. His Kansas-born mother, also musically inclined, had an equally profound effect on Woody.
“Okemah was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.” (Excerpt from “Pastures of Plenty” by Woody Guthrie, Edited by Harold Leventhal & Dave Marsh)
Slightly built, with an extremely full and curly head of hair, Woody was a precocious and unconventional boy from the start. Always a keen observer of the world around him, the people, music and landscape he was exposed to made lasting impressions on him.
During his early years in Oklahoma, Woody experienced the first of a series of immensely tragic personal losses. With the accidental death of his older sister Clara, the family’s financial ruin, and the institutionalization and eventual loss of his mother, Woody’s family and home life was forever devastated.
In 1920, oil was discovered nearby and overnight Okemah was transformed into an “oil boom” town, bringing thousands of workers, gamblers and hustlers to the once sleepy farm town. Within a few years, the oil flow suddenly stopped and Okemah suffered a severe economic turnaround, leaving the town and its inhabitants “busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted.”
From his experiences in Okemah, Woodys uniquely wry outlook on life, as well as his abiding interest in rambling around the country, was formed. And so, he took to the open road.
He lived in Oklahoma until he was 14, when his mother was hospitalised as a consequence ofHuntington’s disease, a hereditaryneurological disorder, and his father had to move toPampa, Texas, to repay debts from unsuccessful real estate deals. During his early teens Guthrie learned folk and blues songs from his parents’ friends.
Woody was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American folk music; his songs, including social justice songs, such as “This Land Is Your Land,” have inspired several generations both politically and musically. He wrote hundreds of political,folk, and children’s songs, along withballadsand improvised works.
Many of his recorded songs are archived in theLibrary of Congress. Songwriters such asBob Dylan,Phil Ochs,Johnny Cash,Bruce Springsteen,Robert Hunter,Harry Chapin,John Mellencamp,Pete Seeger,Andy Irvine,Joe Strummer,Billy Bragg,Jerry Garcia,Jay Farrar,Bob Weir,Jeff Tweedy,Bob Childers,Sammy Walker,Tom PaxtonandAndrew Jackson Jihadhave acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.