Who was Woody Guthrie
In the early 1960s, Woody Guthrie lies forgotten in a New Jersey mental institution, surrounded by the insane. The picture that Bob Dylan paints of him in his autobiography "Chronicles Volume One" (2004) is not exactly encouraging. The doctors are unable to diagnose what exactly he has. What is certain is that the functions of his brain are increasingly deteriorating. The still unknown Dylan has traveled to the institution from Minnesota to keep his example company. To keep him happy, he plays songs for him on the guitar.
It is the inglorious end of a musician who rose to be the most important political singer in America in the 1940s. Born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie experienced much of the turmoil of the 20th century. His father, a cowboy and local politician, went bankrupt in the early 1930s. After his mother was admitted to a mental institution, Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas in 1931, where he married in 1933. The marriage had three children, but the Great Depression and a devastating Midwest sandstorm forced Guthrie to immigrate to California in 1935. Like Tom Joad in John Steinbeck's novel "Frucht Des Zorns" he moves west to create a livelihood for his family.
When he reached his goal after two years, he experienced the hostility that the inhabitants have towards the homeless "Okies", on the other hand, he had a taste for life on the road. He sees himself as an outsider and begins to put his discomfort into pieces with clear messages. This is how the first titles such as "I Ain't Got No Home", "Goin 'Down the Road Feelin' Bad", "Talking Dust Bowl Blues", "Tom Joad" or "Hard Travelin '" emerged.
Thanks to his socially critical texts, he quickly made a name for himself in Los Angeles, where he moderated a radio show with singer Lefty Lou and wrote the "Woody Sez" column for People's Daily World magazine. Always restless, he moved to New York in 1939, where he appeared at countless union events and met the most famous political folk singers of his time. Among them Pete Seeger and the later Weavers. In 1940 Guthrie recorded his pieces under the direction of Moses Asch. The project of the Washington Smithsonian Institute aims to catalog the roots music of the USA. During this time Guthrie wrote his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land", and his autobiography "Bound For Glory", in which he describes his adventures and experiences.
When the United States entered World War II, Guthrie first became involved in the merchant navy and then in the army. The unmistakable inscription "This Machine Kills Fascists" is emblazoned on his guitar. At the end of the war he moved to Coney Island near New York, where he remarried after divorcing his first wife. He had four children from his second marriage, including Arlo, who himself became a well-known folksinger at the end of the 1960s.
Guthrie takes care of the offspring, writes a collection of children's songs called "Grow On" and forms the successful band Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, but he doesn't stay in New York for long. In the early 1950s he was back in California with his traveling companion Ramblin 'Jack Elliott, married a third time and became a father again. However, his behavior is becoming increasingly unpredictable. In 1955 he returned to New York, where the symptoms were misinterpreted as alcohol addiction or schizophrenia. In reality, it is Huntington's disease ('St. Vitus's Dance'), an incurable hereditary disease that his mother had already succumbed to. Guthrie spent most of the time up until his death in 1967 in the unenlightening environment of mental hospitals.
Bob Dylan isn't the only one to honor Guthrie's name. His corpus of hundreds of songs, drawings, books and articles made him an exceptional artist during his lifetime, whose fame increased again in the following years. Some of the awards Guthrie received after his death were his entry into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame as well as a Grammy in 1998. Ani DiFranco and Bruce Springsteen play his songs. His daughter Nora founded the Woody Guthrie Archive and commissioned Billy Bragg and Wilco in the mid-1990s to set and record previously unpublished material. This is how the albums "Mermaid Avenue" (1998) and "Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2" (2000) were created.
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