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Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma when this part of America was still considered American Indian territory. His father, Charlie, played in cowboy bands and ran a trading post. When Woody was still in high school, his father's business failed, his younger sister died when a coal stove exploded, and his mother was committed to a state insane asylum. Woody left home at age 14 when his father returned to his native Texas.
During the 1920s and 1930s Guthrie traveled America looking for work. He arrived in Pampa, Texas, where his father's half-brother taught him to play the guitar. He played locally before marrying his first wife, Marjorie, and moved to California. At first he worked as a painter by day and a singer by night. He often put his own words to the music of popular folk songs. For most of his working life he was able to write one or two songs a day. He got a regular spot on KFVD in Los Angeles, but got divorced and moved to Mexico a few years later.
When the Depression hit in the late 1930s, he rode the freight trains, eventually ending up in New York. He met other folk song performers, including Pete Seeger, who joined him in concerts. His first chance to record came when music collector Alan Lomax invited him to Washington, D.C. to record for the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Songs. The results produced twelve albums.
During World War II Guthrie served first in the Merchant Marines and then the Army. He kept singing and writing songs throughout his military service. At the end of the war Guthrie married for the second time. Marjorie, who had been a dancer with the Martha Graham troupe in New York City, was the mother of several of his children, including Arlo, who is noted for his album/movie "Alice's Restaurant."
He formed the Almanac Singers with Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell. They appeared in clubs and on radio stations throughout the Northeast. During the 1940s they covered the country and were especially noted for appearing at meetings helping workers form unions.
Guthrie's hit singles for Folkway Records included "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd," "Hobo's Lullaby," "Billy the Kid," and "Sharecropper's Song."
In the 1960s his career was cut short by Huntington's chorea, a degenerative muscle disease that eventually caused his death on October 3, 1967. Among his visitors during his illness was Bob Dylan, who vowed to follow Guthrie's legacy and keep his memory alive. Arlo Guthrie followed in his father's footsteps and became a renowned folk singer. In 1976 Guthrie's autobiography, "Bound for Glory," was made into a movie with David Carradine playing Guthrie. In 1988 Columbia Records released "Folkways: A Vision Shared-A Tribute to Woody Guthrie."
Woody Guthrie was able to make music that appealed to the common man. His folk music appealed to country music audiences unlike that of any other folk performer. He was the imspiration for a generation of folk singers, such as Bob Dylan, who dominated the music scene in the 1980s.