07/14/03
Woody Guthrie
    by John Cech

Brief sound clip

That's Woodrow Wilson Guthrie singing one of the songs he wrote for his young daughter, Cathy, in the 1940s. Guthrie dashed off these songs daily (whether he was with his family or rambling away from home, on the road or riding the rails, giving concerts in factories, union halls and migrant labor camps. Guthrie became the troubador of Depression-era and post-war America, a guitar-playing Walt Whitman for the common man, whose keening Oklahoma voice perhaps more than any other defines that turbulent era in our national history. And for him a song was everything. He wrote: "it's what's wrong and how to fix it, or it could be who's hungry and where their mouth is, or who's out of work and where the job is, or who's broke and where the money is, or who's carrying a gun and where the peace is." Woody told and sang it like that: simple and clear and direct.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, and grew up in a family that had fallen on some very hard times. But everyone who knew him as a child reports that he was anything but glum or beaten down -- he sang, played the harmonica, and already was a kind of joking minstrel in the dust-choked Oklahoma towns he found himself living in and, later, in Texas, where he officially took up music as his calling as a teenager.

He is remembered and revered today for his many songs about the struggles for Americans during the Great Depression, but Guthrie is also one of our most engaging writers of songs for children. He gets to the heart of what kids delight in, through tickling sound effects and timeless words and melodies as simple and smooth as a hand full of marbles. He writes about everyday experiences -- saying hello and mailing a letter, hammering a nail, dancing, making nonsense, and working together.

He died in 1967 of Huntington's Disease, which had plagued him for nearly fifteen years, and which left him unable to play or sing or to recognize his family and his many friends. But we can remember him with his son, Arlo, singing the anthem that every school child knows -- by heart:

Brief sound clip

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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