"Woody Guthrie ain't a gonna kill nobody"
"I would like to see every single soldier on every single side, just take off your helmet, unbuckle your kit, lay down your rifle, and set down at the side of some shady lane, and say, nope, I ain't a gonna kill nobody. Plenty of rich folks wants to fight. Give them the guns." (Woody Guthrie)
For his 17th birthday in 1929, a friend presented the teenager with a $5 Mexican guitar. Although no one ever accused Woody Guthrie of being a great guitarist, the gift had a tremendous effect on him. It provided the beginnings of the most insightful American music of the Great Depression, the second World War, the founding of the "beat" generation, protest songs, and folk music.
Woody was born in Oklahoma, but his music was born in Pampa, Texas. As a teenager in Pampa he formed a group called the Corncob Trio with his friends Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker. They played around town anywhere they could, for any audience they could find. Woody's music grew to have a dry and sometimes biting sense of humor, but he overwhelmingly chose to sing feel-good songs and humorous songs, instead of singing about his own misery and following the self-indulgent path of most popular musicians.
At age 21, in 1933, Woody married Matt Jennings' younger sister Mary. She was only sixteen. They would have three children. Two years later, in 1935, disaster struck. The dust storms hit, farms were lost, and Woody hit the road to California, as did thousands of people from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. He wrote a song about leaving Pampa, saying "So, long its been good to know ya". Over the years, he rewrote the song to fit many different circumstances, and the original remains a favorite among fans.
What Woody saw on the road touched him deeply--people by the thousands who had been completely dispossessed, losing their homes and their dignity. It aroused a sense of indignation and anger that he never lost. He saw these people arriving in what they thought would be the "promised land" of California only to be exploited further by powerful growers.
For a few years he traveled, surviving the depression years completely insolvent and nearly homeless. He said: "I've been a rambling man from Oklahoma to California and back three times by freight train, highway, and thumb; I've been stranded and disbanded, busted and disgusted. I've been with people of all sorts, sizes, shapes and calibres--folks that wandered over the country looking for work, down and out and hungry half the time. I've slept with in greasy rotten shacks and tents with Okies and Arkies."
Woody wrote literally hundreds of songs about the migrants. Yet along with his anger over their fate and their treatment, he developed a love for the land that comes through in his songs. He saw both desperate people and a beautiful country. Woody's love for the land and for the people who live close to it comes through in songs such as "Pastures of Plenty."
After going to California and New York, Woody started to get some better-paying gigs. His activist lyrics led to him being followed around by FBI agents, who suspected him of being a Commie. Then, when the war broke out, Guthrie wrote a bunch of anti-Hitler songs, and volunteered for sea duty. Assigned to the Merchant Marine, his ship was shot out from under him three times in succession. After the war, he wrote his autobiography, "Bound For Glory".
With songs like "This Land Is Your Land", Woody Guthrie had become a national treasure by 1950. Using the only tools available to him - his voice and guitar - Guthrie stirred his listeners deepest feelings. When it was first released, "This Land" was considered by some to be unpatriotic. The implied message, some said, was collective land ownership. The public soon overruled such notions, and the song is considered one of the greatest patriotic songs ever written.
In the 1950's Woody came down with Huntington's Disease, and was institutionalized until his death in 1967. A new generation soon discovered the genius of Woody Guthrie. Some of his old union songs were revived to become part of the civil rights and peace movements. In the winter of 1960-1, a young aspiring songwriter from Minnesota hitched to New York to visit Woody at his hospital bedside. Changing his name from Zimmerman to Dylan, this songwriter spent his early career emulating Woody. He even took on a fake Oklahoma accent. Later, Dylan would joke that in those days he was practically a Woody Guthrie "jukebox."
American folk singers owe their greatest respect to Woody Guthrie, who came out of Texas with a new fresh sound that fought against every form of injustice and triumphed.