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Woody Guthrie

July 12, 2000

Historian's Notes

Woody Guthrie was one of the world's pre-eminent songwriters and performers and an Oklahoma native to boot!! If you don't know why Woody made it into the Oklahoma Audio Almanac, you need to pick up this book and read it right away!!

Resources

Klein, Joe (1980). Woody Guthrie: A life. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Almanac Transcript

This week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac we honor Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, born July 14th, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma.

Named in honor of the democratic presidential candidate at the time, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known as Woody, became one of the most prolific song writers in the history of the United States. At an early age Woody exhibited his love of wandering and singing. Rather than attend school, Woody preferred to wander the streets of his hometown picking up stories and jokes from the people he met and playing his harmonica or guitar for some odd change or food.

It was the "Dirty Thirties," the dust bowl era that really started Woody off on the path to national attention. Sick of the dust, dirt and stagnation of the dust bowl Woody packed up what little he owned, leaving behind a wife and three kids, and headed to California. On his way west and while in California, Woody not only witnessed the great migration of Okies, Arkies, Texans and others but recorded those images in dozens and dozens of songs. Usually taking the melody from well known hymns and folk songs, Woody replaced the standard words with contemporary timely lyrics that expressed the anger, frustration, hope and hopelessness of the people he met. Migrant farmers felt that Woody could accurately express a lifetimes experience in a two minute song, and it was this ability that brought Woody to the attention of other singers, songwriters and common everyday people across the nation.

The majority of Woody's life was spent crossing and re-crossing the country picking up stories and writing hundreds upon hundreds of songs. Woody wrote and sung about every topic imaginable from hydro electric dam construction to riding in the car with his children. His songs were simple but catchy and have been described as "hard hitting songs for hard hit people." Throughout his life Guthrie worked for radio stations, the US Government, was self-employed and performed thousands of shows for free, or picked up what little loose change the audience could spare.

As Woody entered into his thirties a slow but steady change became noticeable, his constant wandering became more erratic and less predictable, his home life crumbled and he became hostile towards his best friends, he forgot words to songs and slurred his speech so that words when remembered became unintelligible. It wasn't until years after his odd behavior began that he was diagnosed with Huntington's Chorea a degenerative disease passed through the family by his mothers side. Unknown to anyone but himself, Woody's ability to control his thoughts, speech, and actions had been for years slowly slipping away. On October 3, 1967 Woody Guthrie in a New Jersey hospital, passed away.

I'm Steven Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a production of the OSU Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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