Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie faced the same hardships that many Americans at the time were facing. He and his siblings cared for his sick mother until she was committed to a hospital with what would become known as Huntington’s Disease. Woody eventually left Oklahoma to live with his father in Texas at the age of 18. This would prove to be the first chapter of Guthrie’s many travels across America. In the wake of the Great Dust Bowl, Guthrie left Texas for California, as did so many people from his birthplace of Oklahoma. It was in California that Guthrie began to find an audience for his innate musical talents and progressive beliefs. He performed regularly on a commercial radio station and fell in with several radical political groups, including members of the socialist and communist parties. Although he did not consider himself to be a communist, the idealistic foundations of these groups struck a chord with Woody that inspired him to incorporate these forward-thinking, fundamental beliefs of social equality and pacifism into his songwriting.
His departure from California led him to New York, where he continued to write songs and perform them for all who would listen. It was in New York that Guthrie’s first recordings were produced. Songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” emerged from this time period, garnering him additional radio play and even some attention from celebrities like John Steinbeck. For the next fifteen years, Guthrie’s persona of a rambler and troubadour was solidified as he worked and lived all across the country, even spending time overseas as a member of the U.S. Army during World War II.
In the early 1960s, Guthrie’s health began to deteriorate. Like his mother, Woody suffered from Huntington’s Disease, an ailment that often made it nearly impossible for him to produce music. Despite the bleak outlook, this time was not without its bright spots. Perhaps the most interesting of these was the relationship formed between Guthrie and one of his frequent hospital visitors, a 19-year old Bob Dylan. These visits provided a lasting impression on Dylan, who took up the torch of his idol and brought his own songs of social equality and anti-war protest to the public ear.
Woody Guthrie’s voice and passion continue to live on today through the countless poets and musicians that he inspired. In addition to Bob Dylan are the great Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Pete Seeger, Steve Earle, and Jeff Tweedy, to name but a few. Guthrie’s son Arlo also followed in his father’s footsteps as a successful folk songwriter. Woody has been posthumously admitted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, and the official state folk songs of Washington and Oklahoma were written by Guthrie. Even though the man was truly ahead of his time, his music and message prevail and continue to inspire us through the difficulties facing America and the world today.