America’s greatest folk singer Woody Guthrie would be 90 now if he had lived. This month the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville has some interesting Guthrie-ana:
- Beginning Jan. 20, the Museum will display 14 original oil paintings by Kathy Jakobsen in the Community Gallery. The paintings were originally created for the book This Land Is Your Land (Little, Brown 1998), an illustrated version of Guthrie’s classic song and are lush, color-drenched depictions of Guthrie’s America … There is no charge to view the paintings, which will be on exhibit through March 15, 2003.
….On Saturday, Feb. 8, the Museum presents “Can You Get from the Dust Bowl to Music Row?” Journalist/historian Dave Marsh will lead a panel discussion of how Guthrie’s songs relate to country music’s great populist tradition (Jimmie Rodgers, Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle). Cost is $5 per person or free with Museum admission, and the 90-minute program begins at 11:00 a.m.
Also as part of the Guthrie “90th Year Celebration,” the Museum’s latest archive spotlight, which is currently on display, features Guthrie’s 1930s model Slingerland guitar. The exhibit also includes Guthrie’s typewritten manuscript of “Pastures of Plenty,” a song which traces the migrant experience from the Dust Bowl to the promise of the Northwest. [AP]
Even better is the concert tonight night at the Ryman Auditorium called “Nashville Sings Woody.” The lineup includes Guthrie’s son, Arlo, Marty Stuart, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Janis Ian. Sounds pretty smokin’.
If you are not too familiar with Guthrie beyond “This Land Is Your Land,” here’s a bit of bio from the Woody Guthrie Foundation site:
- Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. Describing the small frontier town in Okfuskee County, Woody writes:
“Okemah was one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.”
….In 1931, when Okemah’s boomtown period went bust, Woody left for Texas. In the panhandle town of Pampa, he fell in love and married Mary Jennings in 1933, the younger sister of a friend and musician named Matt Jennings. Together, Woody and Mary had three children, Gwen, Sue and Bill. It was with Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker that Woody made his first attempt at a career, forming The Corn Cob Trio. However, if the Great Depression made it hard to support his family, the Great Dust Storm, which hit the Great Plains in 1935, made it impossible. Due to the lack of work, and driven by a search for a better life, Woody headed west along with the mass migration of “dust bowl refugees” known as “Okies.” These farmers and unemployed workers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgia had also lost their homes and land, and so set out with their families in search of opportunities elsewhere. Moneyless and hungry, Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked to California, developing a love for traveling on the open road –a practice which he would repeat often.
….Woody’s identification with outsider status would become part and parcel of his political and social positioning, one which gradually worked its way into his songwriting, as evident in his Dust Bowl Ballads such as I Ain’t Got No Home, Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad, Talking Dust Bowl Blues, Tom Joad and Hard Travelin’.
….Never one to become comfortable with success, or being in one place for too long, in 1939 Woody headed east for New York City, where he was embraced for his Steinbeckian homespun wisdom and musical “authenticity” by leftist organizations, artists, writers, musicians, and other intellectuals.
….Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Will Geer, Sony Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawes, Sis Cunningham, among others, became Woody’s friends and collaborators, taking up such social causes as Union organizing, anti-Fascism, strengthening the Communist Party, and generally fighting for the things they believed in the only way they knew how: through political songs of protest.
In 1940, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Woody in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress. Also during the 1940s, Woody recorded extensively for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. The recordings from this period, which have been reissued under the Smithsonian Folkways label, continue to be touchstones for young folk music singers/songwriters everywhere.
….Despite Woody’s constant traveling and performing during the 1940s, and with the final dissolution of his first marriage, Woody strenuously courted an already married young Martha Graham dancer named Marjorie Mazia. Woody and Marjorie were married in 1946. This relationship provided Woody a level of domestic stability and encouragement which he had previously not known, enabling him to complete and publish his first novel, Bound for Glory, in 1943. A semi-autobiographical account of his Dust Bowl years, Bound for Glory generally received critical acclaim. Together, Woody and Marjorie had four children: Cathy, who died at age four in a tragic home accident, Arlo, Joady, and Nora.
Moved by his passion against fascism, during World War II, Woody served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army, shipping out to sea on several occasions with his buddies Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi.
….Woody suffered from Huntington’s Chorea, the degenerative disease which would gradually and eventually rob him of all his health, talents and abilities. This was the same disease which had forced his mother’s institutionalization thirty years earlier.
In 1954, Woody admitted himself into Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, one of several that he would go in and out of for the next thirteen years. While at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York, Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967.