Woody Guthrie, singer/songwriter and guitarist of folk music in the '30s and '40s, was
one of the main musical influences of Bob Dylan, who, in turn, went on to become one of
the principal shapers of rock music today.
Guthrie, whose ballads were heavy on social commentary and often focused on
discontent, is also a hero to many other folk-rock musicians up to the present. The latest
high-profile example of the folk singer's continued relevance is Mermaid Avenue,
the 1998 album on which Brit-folkie Billy Bragg and No Depression-rockers Wilco set
previously unreleased Guthrie lyrics to new music.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born 87 years ago today in Okemah, Okla. His father was
a singer, banjo player and professional boxer. Guthrie left home at 16 and journeyed to
Texas and Louisiana, working as a farmer and at odd jobs such as sign painter and
In 1929, while visiting an uncle, Guthrie learned to play guitar. During the Depression he
lived the life of a hobo, but by 1937 he was hosting a Los Angeles radio show.
Guthrie moved to New York and began embracing leftist politics. He began hanging
around with such seminal folk artists as Pete Seeger and the Weavers. He became a
communist briefly, writing a newspaper column, but was denied access to the U.S.
Communist Party because he wouldn't renounce his religion. Guthrie was also
vehemently anti-Hitler and had a sign on his guitar reading "This Machine Kills Fascists."
In 1943 Guthrie became a merchant marine. Two years later he married Marjorie
Greenblatt Mazia, with whom he had four children, including folk singer Arlo.
Guthrie's songs, which include "This Land Is Your Land," "Do-Re-Mi" (
HREF="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=%7Ep- XXXXXX%2F0031992_0102_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt
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It's Been Good to Know You," earned him a reputation as a storyteller, but he didn't make
a record until 1940, when Alan Lomax taped him for the Library of Congress. Excerpts of
these sessions were later released by a number of record labels.
A severe drinking problem and a genetic degenerative nerve disorder kept Guthrie
hospitalized in the late '50s and '60s. Dylan visited Guthrie on his sickbed in the early
Seeger held memorial concerts for Guthrie who died in 1967 at New
York's Carnegie Hall (1969) and at the Hollywood Bowl (1970). Albums from these
concerts, which included Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins, helped keep Guthrie's
Guthrie also earned new fans from the 1976 film "Bound for Glory," based on his 1943
autobiography. The movie earned an Oscar nomination as Best Picture.
Guthrie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and is the subject of a
Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display through Sept. 26 at Los Angeles'
Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
"He's become an icon, and he was never that," Bragg said when Mermaid Avenue
was released. "He's an iconoclast if anything. Only 10 percent of the songs he ever wrote
have ever been heard. Until those songs are heard, you can argue Woody Guthrie isn't
dead. He's still got records to make."
Other birthdays: Chris Cross (Ultravox), 47; and Tanya Donelly (ex-Belly), 33.