Woody Guthrie

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Woody Guthrie, 1943. The guitar says: This Machine Kills Fascists - "This machine kills fascists"

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie , better known by his nickname and stage name "Woody" Guthrie (born July 14, 1912 in Okemah , Oklahoma , † October 3, 1967 in New York ), was an American singer-songwriter . The politically in union- left spectrum active poet and ballad writer significantly influenced the American folk music .


Childhood and youth

A simple house
The Okfuskee County , Oklahoma house where Woody Guthrie lived as a child, 1979

Woody Guthrie, named by his parents after the 1912 Democratic presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson , initially grew up in a well-to-do family. His father Charley was a land speculator and local politician who, however, lost all of his fortune. Guthrie's childhood and adolescence were then overshadowed by a series of family tragedies. His favorite sister Clara suffered life-threatening burns and died within a day. His father also suffered from severe burns; Woody Guthrie's deranged mother, Nora, is believed to have doused him with kerosene while his father slept on the sofa. He had to go to nursing care while his mother was admitted to a clinic because she had been acting strange for a long time. She suffered from the hereditary nerve disease Huntington's disease , which was still little known at the time , which leads to mental as well as motor disorders and which is still incurable today. On his last visit to the hospital, she did not recognize her son. The consequences of the disease determined Guthrie's whole life, who developed the first serious symptoms himself in his mid-30s and eventually died of the disease.

Los Angeles, radio and the Dust Bowl ballads

Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas , to live with his father when he was 17 , where he made his way through small jobs and made efforts to finish high school . He married the sister of his friend Matt Jennings, with whom he had formed a first band. In 1937 he hitchhiked to California for the first time to an aunt who lived in Turlock and said he could find work there. When he failed, he briefly returned to the Pampas, where his wife was expecting their second child, and then went to Los Angeles . In the first years of wandering the country was from the Great Depression , the national shaping of the global economic crisis , shaken. Guthrie hired himself as a sign painter, performed in bars and pubs and played as a street musician. Together with his cousin Leon "Oklahoma Jack" Guthrie, he found an initially unpaid job at the radio station KFVD, the focus of which was left-wing talk shows. They mostly played popular cowboy ballads, with Jack often in the foreground. He soon left the slot to a mutual friend named Maxine Chrissman. The Woody and Lefty Lou show was more folk-oriented and socially critical and soon became very popular, especially among ordinary people and those who had fled the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl from the Great Plains like Guthrie and Chrissman : In the 1930s, parts of the US were hit by a year-long period of drought.

Guthrie made the fate of these refugees, known as Okies , the subject of his Dust Bowl Ballads , which he recorded in 1940 after moving to New York. These songs earned him the title of Dust Bowl Balladeer and are among the most successful of his 3001 songs.

Columbia River and Grand Coulee Dam

Video: Woody Guthrie wrote, composed, and sang songs for the 1941 film The Columbia across the Columbia River , which was not released until 1949. Playing time: 21:10.

Until the New Deal , the electricity supply was limited to the big cities, which was only profitable for a few private companies. As part of the government program of the Bonneville Power Administration , the dams of the Columbia River were built, whose turbines supplied the surrounding towns and villages with electricity. This created jobs and reduced poverty. The Grand Coulee Dam later also supplied electricity to the Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Complex . In order to make the electrification project better known and to promote Woody Guthrie, among others, was recruited, who toured its construction sites and later published the resulting songs.

"Now the world holds seven wonders that the travelers always tell,
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well.
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam's fair land,
It's the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam. (...) "

As part of this activity, he wrote as many songs in 27 days in 1941. Quote Cisco Houston : "Woody is a man who writes two or three ballads every day before breakfast". In addition to Grand Coulee Dam , Pastures of Plenty , one of his most famous songs, and the song Roll On, Columbia , which is now one of the hymns of Washington State, were written there.

new York

Guthrie came to New York in early 1940 and made the first sound recordings for the Library of Congress with the musicologist Alan Lomax ; he also played his Dust Bowl Ballads for the record label RCA Victor . He recorded songs that he had already written during his time in Los Angeles, and also wrote a song called Tom Joad with reference to John Steinbeck's novel Fruits of Wrath , which also dealt with the topic. He met Pete Seeger through the actor Will Geer , with whom he had befriended in Los Angeles and had also performed in the migrant camps . Guthrie and Seeger, who was among those who spread the word about Guthrie's songs after Guthrie could no longer perform, became good friends.

In 1941 Guthrie became a member of the Politfolk commune The Almanac Singers , which also included Pete Seeger and, for a time, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee . He also wrote a daily column for the Daily Worker , the official organ of the Communist Party, with which he strongly sympathized throughout his life, but which he never joined. In funny, down-to-earth columns, he addressed the cause of the working class, pointed to the gap between rich and poor and the need to fight against exploitation and discrimination against the workers. In 1943 his autobiographical novel Bound for Glory was published and was a great success.

In 1943 Guthrie was called up for military service. Not wanting to serve with gun in hand, he volunteered to join the merchant marine . Between his three missions on the North Atlantic route, which was dangerous because of the German submarine attacks and which took him to Great Britain, Italy and North Africa, among others, he recorded twelve records for Moses Asch's Folkways label, most of them together with Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry.

After the war Guthrie founded the folk musicians union “Peoples Songs” with Seeger. In 1945 he created the cycle Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti in memory of the anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti who were executed in 1927 , which he recorded for Folkways in 1946/47 . The album wasn't released until 1960, however, as Guthrie himself wasn't happy with the result. In addition to Guthrie's eleven ballads , Sacco's Letter to Son was set to music (meaning: “Sacco's letter to his son”) and a title by Pete Seeger from 1951 was added.

Guthrie continued to write songs, but his illness made him more and more unreliable and difficult to deal with. The house on Mermaid Street in Coney Island, New York, where Guthrie lived with his second wife Marjory, was an artists' hangout. At the suggestion of his mother-in-law Alisa Greenblatt, a respected Jewish poet and activist, he also wrote texts dealing with the lives of Jews.

Marriages and children

In October 1933 Guthrie married Mary Jennings, who was then only 16 years old. The marriage had three children: Gwen and Sue, who, like Woody Guthrie and his mother, developed Huntington's disease, and Bill, who died in a car accident in 1960. The couple separated in 1941, but were not officially divorced until 1945, as Mary was a Catholic.

Shortly afterwards Guthrie married Marjorie Mazia, whom he had known since 1942. Together they had four children, of whom their daughter Cathy was killed in an apartment fire while she was still a child. The son Arlo , born in 1947 , also became known as a singer. Joady Ben and Nora Lee followed in 1948 and 1950.

In 1953, when he was already severely affected by the disease, he married Anneke Marshall, who gave birth to a daughter. Lorina Lynn was adopted by foster parents and died in a car accident at the age of 19.

Sickness and death

Since the beginning of the 50s Guthrie could hardly be active as a musician. The last recordings for Folkways Records from 1952 were no longer released out of discretion because they were too bad; shortly before that, he had made his last commercial recordings for Decca Records . Then the nerve disease Huntington's disease inherited from his mother affected him so much that he was forcibly admitted to Greystone Hospital in 1956 for nursing care. Previously, after the final diagnosis, at the insistence of his wife, he had admitted himself to Brooklyn State Hospital. On October 3, 1967, he died in a special ward for Huntington's disease patients in the New York borough of Queens , to which he had been transferred two years earlier on the initiative of his ex-wife.

While still in hospital, he was officially honored with the US Department of the Interior Conservation Award: a station in the Columbia hydropower project was named after him.


Audio sample: "This Land Is Your Land" (recording from 2007)

Guthrie influenced the further development of folk music - “A folk song is about problems and how to solve them” - and is now an American icon. His work includes around a thousand songs, several books as well as countless essays and other texts. Alan Lomax called him "the greatest ballad writer America has ever known," while Cisco Houston said of his long-time partner, "When you hear his songs, you really hear America sing". The American music expert Bill C. Malone judges that it was almost exclusively Guthrie's effect that led to the blossoming of the New York protest folk scene in the early 1960s.

Bob Dylan visited "his last hero" at the bedside; he later released "Song to Woody" on his first album Bob Dylan ; he also wrote the five-page poem Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie . Guthrie's influence extends into the contemporary singer / songwriter and folk music scene. Phil Ochs was probably the one from the political folk music scene of the 60s who was most likely to be Woody Guthrie's successor and who honored his role model with the song Bound for Glory (The Story of Woody Guthrie) . At the turn of the millennium, Billy Bragg recorded with Wilco as a backing band previously unvoiced poems by Guthrie on the albums Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II .

Numerous songs by Woody Guthrie were translated into German by Harry Rowohlt and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel . His son Arlo Guthrie continued the family's musical legacy.

In the United States, there was a 2004 copyright lawsuit over a parody of This Land Is Your Land , which has become an unofficial national anthem of the United States, which is sung by the ultra-conservative members of the Tea Party when they meet at their conventions, and was also played at Barack Obama's inauguration as US President. Since the 1973 copyright claims had not been extended as required at the time, the lawsuit was withdrawn shortly thereafter. Many sources contain Woody's own note on the subject, written for a music notebook from 1930:

“This song is Copyrighted in US, under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin 'it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do. "

" This song has been copyrighted in the US for 28 years under seal number 154085, and whoever is caught singing it without our permission becomes a great friend of ours because we don't care at all. Published it. Write it down. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodels. We wrote it and we didn't want to do more. "

- The Songs of Woodie Guthrie

In 1987, Washington State declared Woody's Roll On, Columbia across the Columbia River and the New Deal's public electricity and dam projects ("Grand Coulee Dam") to be the national folk song. In 1961, a senator commented that Woody's songs clearly made more than a dozen public speeches on the same subject and purpose.

Woody's lyrics have often been compared to Leadbelly's and Walt Whitman's in their effect and style . Woody repeatedly changed and reinvented the living texts, depending on the occasion. Multiple versions of a song are therefore not uncommon.

The biography Woody Guthrie and his years of wandering were filmed in 1975 with David Carradine in the lead role. The film released in 1976 is called Bound for Glory or This Land is My Land . In the credits, the song This Land Is My Land is first sung by Guthrie and Carradine, then by more and more singers and interpreters, which ultimately proves its popularity. The film received several Academy Awards, including the one for best music.

The American punk rock scene also makes references to Guthrie in some cases. The New York street punk band The Casualties released a song about Woody Guthrie (In It for Life) on their album Under Attack . In 2003, Anti-Flag set the text Post-War Breakout to music by Guthrie . They also used the slogan " This Machine Kills Fascists , which was emblazoned on Guthrie's acoustic guitar, as the song title and for a while it graced the instrument of bassist Chris # 2.

The daughter Nora Guthrie takes care of the estate. In 1998 the album Mermaid Avenue with the lyrics of Guthries was created from texts left by her father through the setting of Jeff Tweedys and Billy Braggs . For the folksinger's 100th birthday, the album New Multitudes came out in 2012, also from left behind verses . The musicians Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo), Jim James from My Morning Jacket , Will Johnson from Centro-Matic and Anders Parker from the alternative country band Varnaline were involved . The CD released by Concord (Universal) was “Album of the Week” on NDR .

In 2002 the American manufacturer of acoustic guitars , the Gibson Guitar Corporation , brought out a " signature guitar " in honor of Woody Guthrie : the Woody Guthrie SJ .

Awards (selection)

  • US Department of the Interior's Conservation Award (1966)
  • Naming of a station on the Columbia River Electricity Project after Guthrie (1966)


Songs (selection)

  • Columbia River Collection:
    • Roll On, Columbia
    • Grand Coulee Dam
    • Pastures of Plenty
  • This Land Is Your Land
  • Dust Bowl Ballades: (...)
    • Thu Re Wed
    • Hard travellin '
    • Dust Bowl Refugees
  • Pastures of Plenty
  • Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child:
    • Goodnight Little Darling
  • Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) - lyric only, melody later by the teacher Martin Hoffman
  • Bound for Glory - Autobiography
  • New York Town Blues
  • Miss Pavlichenko
  • I'm Shipping Up to Boston - lyric only


  • 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads
  • 1941 Struggle: Documentary No. 1
  • 1946/47 Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti (published 1960)
  • 1958 Bound for Glory
  • 1958 Songs to Grow On, Vol. One - Nursery Days
  • 1962 Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs
  • 1967 This Land Is Your Land
  • 1968 In Memoriam
  • 1977 Original Recordings Made by Woody Guthrie 1940–1946
  • 1981 Poor Boy
  • 1991 Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child
  • 2007 The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949
  • 1964 Library of Congress Recordings, Vols. 1-3
  • 1964 The Early Years
  • 1965 Woody Guthrie
  • 1968 Woody Guthrie (Ember 1968)
  • 1972 A Tribute to Woody Guthrie
  • 1972 The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie
  • 1973 Immortal
  • 1974 Woody Guthrie (Vol. 1)
  • 1985 Why, oh Why?
  • 1988 Columbia River Collection
  • 1990 Immortal Woody Guthrie: Golden Classics Part Two
  • 1990 Worried Man Blues
  • 1992 Legend of American Folk Blues
  • 1992 The Very Best Of
  • 1992 The Very Best Of [Music club]
  • 1994 Long Ways to Travel: The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944–1949
  • 1995 A Legendary Performer
  • 1997 This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1
  • 1997 Muleskinner Blues: The Asch Recordings Vol. 2
  • 1998 Hard Travelin ': The Asch Recordings Vol. 3
  • 1999 This Machine Kills Fascists
  • 1999 Buffalo Skinners: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 4
  • 1999 The Asch Recordings Vol. 1-4
  • 2000 Ramblin 'Round
  • 2000 The Woody Guthrie Collection
  • 2000 American Folk Legend
  • 2001 House of the Rising Sun
  • 2001 The Collection
  • 2001 The Very Best of Woody Guthrie
  • 2001 Pastures of Plenty
  • 2002 The Ultimate Collection
  • 2002 Dejavu Retro Gold Collection
  • 2003 Country and Folk Roots
  • 2003 The Best of the War Years
  • 2003 The Folk Collection
  • 2004 Chain Gang Special
  • 2005 This Machine Kills Fascists (3-CD)
  • 2006 Dust Bowl Balladeer: The Essential Woody Guthrie

See also


Primary literature
  • Bound for Glory. Illustrated with sketches by the author; New York: EP Dutton, 1943. German edition: This country is my country. Autobiography ; With drawings by the author and a foreword by Studs Terkel . German by Hans-Michael Bock ; Frankfurt am Main: Two thousand and one, 1977; New edition (special edition with CD): This country is my country. With drawings by the author and a foreword by Billy Bragg and an afterword by Michael Kleff ; Hamburg: Edition Nautilus, 2001, ISBN 3-89401-363-X .
  • Born to Win ; ed. by Robert Shelton; New York: Macmillan, 1965. (Collected Poems, Songs, Stories, Letters, and Drawings)
  • Folk Songs from A – Y ; 193 songs with notes. Translated by Harry Rowohlt , drawings by Woody Guthrie and a foreword by Pete Seeger; Frankfurt am Main: Two thousand and one, 1977.
  • Woody Sez ; ed. by Marjorie Guthrie, Harold Leventhal , Terry Sullivan, Sheldon Patinkin. Biography of Guy Logsdon; New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1975, ISBN 0-448-11759-2 .
  • Seeds of Man. An Experience Lived and Dreamed ; New York: EP Dutton, 1976, ISBN 0-525-19936-5 .
  • House of Earth, from the estate of Woody Guthrie, edited by Johnny Depp . Translated from the English by Hans-Christian Oeser, Eichborn 2013 ISBN 978-3-8479-0539-4 .
Secondary literature


  • Dave Marsh, Harold Leventhal (Eds.): Woody Guthrie: Pastures of Plenty. A self-portrait. HarperCollins, New York 1990, ISBN 0-06-016342-9 .
  • Martin Butler: Voices of the down and out: the dust bowl migration and the great depression in the songs of Woody Guthrie. Heidelberg 2007, ISBN 978-3-8253-5367-4 .
  • Joe Klein: Woody Guthrie. A life. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1980. German: Woody Guthrie - Die Biographie. List Taschenbuchverlag, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-548-60084-0 .
  • Elizabeth Partridge: This Land Was Made for You and Me. The Life & Songs of Woody Guthrie. Viking, New York 2002, ISBN 0-670-03535-1 .
  • Ed Cray: Ramblin 'Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. WW Norton & Company, 2004.
  • Will Kaufmann: Woody Guthrie, American Radical (Music in American Life). University of Illinois Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-252-03602-6 .


  • Michael Kleff (Ed.): Hard Travelin - The Woody Guthrie Book. Palmyra, Heidelberg 2002, ISBN 3-930378-45-0 (lyrics and essays with CD)
  • Barbara Mürdter: Woody Guthrie - The Voice of the Other America. New Life Publishing House, June 2012, ISBN 978-3-355-01801-2 .

Web links

Commons : Woody Guthrie  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Woody Guthrie: Ballads Of Sacco & Vanzetti (LP cover, track list and international labels of the record release)
  2. Excerpt from Guthrie / Seeger: Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti - Guthrie's setting of a Vanzetti letter ( Vanzetti's Letter ) and Seeger's setting of the last Sacco letter to his son ( Sacco's Letter To Son ) (YouTube, approx. 11 min.)
  3. ^ Deutschlandfunk: Corso , broadcast on November 13, 2009, two new CDs with new settings of Guthrie songs by The Klezmatics and Jonatha Brooke
  4. http://www.woodyguthrie.de/guthrie.html
  5. ^ Review of New Multitudes on Jazz Echo March 2012
  6. https://www.ndr.de/info/programm/musik/nachtclub/albumderwoche295.html
  7. The Woody Guthrie SJ Signature on gibson.com
  8. The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. Rolling Stone , August 2015, accessed August 7, 2017 .
  9. Friede den Lehmhütten, Kampf den Holzbaronen , FAZ from January 13, 2014, p. 26