The great folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie, known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour", was born 100 years ago today, on July 14, 1912. His songs and social activism have influenced countless musicians, from Dylan to Springsteen to Strummer, and his works continue to inspire to this day.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, a small town in Oklahoma. He was a natural musician from an early age, learning songs by ear and playing around town for coins and sandwiches. He first achieved fame in California with his radio partner Maxine 'Lefty Lou' Crissman, performing traditional folk on a commercial radio station. In the '30s, he cut his first album (the only one released during his lifetime), 'Dust Bowl Ballads', in New Jersey.
From there, his career as a singer and songwriter took him across the United States, both on his own and as a member of the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and others. He published an autobiography, 'Bound For Glory', in 1943, and recorded hundreds of songs in the mid-40s for Folkways Records. During the Second World War he served as a mess man and dishwasher with the U.S. Merchant Marine, and after his discharge he moved to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island.
Like his mother before him, Guthrie was afflicted with Huntington's Disease, a degenerative disorder. He was diagnosed with the condition in 1952, and permanently lost his ability to play guitar in 1954 in a campfire accident. He was hospitalized in 1956, and lived in various hospitals until his death on October 3, 1967.
There's a lot to be said about Woody Guthrie and his legacy, but he probably said it better than anybody in this quote about songwriting:
"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built.
I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
This past Tuesday, Smithsonian Folkways released 'Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection', a 3-CD selection of Woody's songs, containing 21 previously unreleased performances and six never-before-released songs, including the first known recordings he made in 1937. The collection also comes with a 150-page large-format book about Guthrie's life.
And if you're in Edmonton in August, you can celebrate Woody's life and work at the Edmonton Folk Festival and at the University of Alberta. The University is holding a conference on August 9 and 10 called 'Woody at 100: The Guthrie Legacy'. A big line-up of speakers will discuss Woody's impact and influence, and films and concerts are also planned at the Edmonton Folk Festival. For more info, visit the Woody 100 site's events page here.
To celebrate the life and long-lasting impact of Woody Guthrie, here are a few of his classic songs:
This Land Is Your Land
I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore
Dust Bowl Blues
More Pretty Girls Than One
Talking Fishing Blues
Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?
Better World A Comin'
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