Sunday, July 12, 2009

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie was born on this day in 1912. Guthrie is perhaps the single most important American folk musician, with a musical legacy that includes hundreds of political, traditional and children's songs, ballads and improvised works. Guthrie played music from childhood, learning traditional folk and blues songs from migrant workers and writing new songs about his experiences which became classics in their own right. He lived in Texas during the great depression, in Oklahoma during the dust bowl era, hitchhiked through the continent, rode freight trains across the country, and walked from Oklahoma City to California, working here and there as a fortune teller, a sign painter, and a guitar player.

He became well known after a fashion - recording his songs for the Library of Congress, and travelling with Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers - but he doggedly clung to his role as an outsider all his life, promoting social causes such as union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening the Communist Party, and generally fighting for peace.

Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York. His ashes were sprinkled into the waters off of Coney Island's shore.

Over his lifetime, Woody Guthrie wrote nearly 3,000 song lyrics, published two novels, wrote poems, prose and plays composed hundreds of letters and news articles which are housed in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City. Sadly, there is hardly any film or video footage of Woody Guthrie performing. This clip, of Guthrie performing the classic work song "John Henry," accompanied by blues giants Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, is one of a tiny handful that exists.

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