Private funeral services are planned Wednesday in New York for Woody Guthrie, Oklahoma-born singer and songwriter who was stricken by an hereditary disease at the height of his fame.
He died Tuesday (Oct. 3, 1967) in Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens at 55. The disease was Huntington’s chorea, which destroys muscle coordination. The same disease killed his mother.
Among the 1,000 songs written by the Okemah-born guitarist-singer are "This Land is Your Land" and "So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You." He sang and strummed his way across the United States in the 1930’s, appearing in saloons, chili joints, at country dances and in hobo jungles in 46 states.
He began writing songs, recording them and became famous. He appeared in Madison Square Garden and New York’s Town Hall before the disease disabled him 15 years ago.
His autobiography, "Bound for Glory," was published in 1943.
"I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good," Guthrie once said. "I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drops of blood. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
"This Land Is Your Land," probably his most famous song, is the kind of song he described.
Guthrie was once described by Clifton Fadiman in a New Yorker magazine story as "a national possession like Yellowstone and Yosemite … part of the best stuff this country has to show the world."
In 1966, Interior Secretary Stewart I. Udall presented Guthrie with a federal government award and called him a poet of the American landscape.
Born one of five children in Okemah, Guthrie as a child sang and jigged for pennies in the streets of the oil boomtown. He dropped out of school after the 10th grade and struck out on his own.
He served in the merchant marines and the army during World War II.
Survivors include three children from his first marriage, all of California; and a son, Arlo, 19, and two daughters, Jody and Nora, of New York, born of his third marriage.Arlo is himself a folksinger.
A sister of Guthrie, Mrs. Mary Jo Edgman, lives in Seminole.
OKEMAH - Wednesday was not officially Woody Guthrie Day in Okemah, but unofficially, it obviously was.
Mrs. Marjory Guthrie, her celebrity son, Arlo Guthrie, and his wife visited Woody Guthrie’s hometown and encouraged efforts there to construct a memorial in the balladeer’s honor.
The Okemah city fathers this spring refused to proclaim Guthrie’s birthday, July 14, as Woody Guthrie Day because of his one-time affiliation with the Communist party.
But the Guthrie’s came anyway. They donated a complete set of Woody Guthre’s books and records to the Okfuskee County Library, and also visited relatives, the house in which Guthrie was raised, and the family plot at the Okemah Cemetery.
Guthrie, the author of more than 1,000 ballads, died in New York City in 1967 at the age of 55 from Huntington’s Disease, a hereditary nervous disease which destroys muscle coordination.
The Guthries were to appear at the Oklahoma City Mummers Theater Wednesday night in a benefit to raise money for research to fight the disease.
Both the Guthrie family and city officials were apprehensive about Wednesday’s visit. The Guthries feared demonstrations and some citizens worried about the influx of hippies to see Arlo Guthrie, but neither occurred.
The Guthries attended a private luncheon for family and friends at the Okemah Hotel. A guest was LaDonna Harris, wife of U.S. Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, and her three children.
Harris had planned to hold a national hearing on a proposed American Folklife Foundation at Okemah on Guthrie’s birthday, but was forced to cancel it due to the city’s attitude. The hearing would have featured Johnny Cash and other well-known singers.
University of Tulsa librarian Guy Logsdon, an expert on Guthrie, described him as "a poet of the people. He was a great human being who had a great desire to improve the lot of all people."
After posing for a family portrait, the Guthries went to the library where Mrs. Guthrie presented the books and records to Mrs. Maye Merrill, librarian, and library board members Mrs. Evelyn Ross and Mrs. V.K. Chowning.
"I think you might learn a little more about our heritage if you read Woody’s books and listen to his songs," Mrs. Guthrie told about 100 young children at the library.
Following the presentation, the party walked a half block to the abandoned London House where Guthrie lived until he left home at the age of 14.
Then they went to the family plot at the cemetery where a marker, illustrated
with (his) own drawing of a balladeer, notes Guthrie’s life.
Oklahoma finds a spot for traveling Woody Guthrie exhibit
The Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit on the life and legacy of Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie will not make its debut in Oklahoma, as originally hoped. But Oklahomans apparently will have the opportunity to see it in their -- and Woody's -- home state, although they'll have to wait three years longer than anticipated.
Bob Blackburn, deputy executive director of the Oklahoma State Historical Society, said the Smithsonian exhibit is tentatively scheduled to wrap up its three-year tour at the society's museum, in the State Capitol complex in Oklahoma City, in February-April, 2002.
The Smithsonian's exhibit, "This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," contains the folk singer's song manuscripts, illustrations and cartoons, Folkways recordings, home movies, musical instruments and related artworks and photos. Its tour is scheduled to open June 24 at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. Over the next three years it will be shown in about 10 cities (the itinerary is still being developed), including the Mall in Washington, D.C., and in Cleveland, Ohio, where Guthrie is to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. (Woody wasn't a rocker, but he always has been an influential, even revered, figure among rock and pop musicians.)
Initially, officials of the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service approached the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma's second most prestigious Western art and culture museum, about debuting the Guthrie exhibit this spring. Officials there expressed an interest in doing so.
But shortly after the talks began, according to officials there, the Cowboy Hall of Fame received a large corporate donation which enabled it to complete unfinished space in the museum's new west wing. The gift meant that the timetable for completing the work, including opening new gallery space, could be accelerated. That, together with the fact that the Cowboy Hall of Fame already was committed to another major time- and energy-consuming undertaking, the "Year of the Cowboy" celebration, meant that it could not handle the Guthrie exhibit.
Reports have circulated that the exhibit was nixed by E.L. Gaylord, publisher of the Daily Oklahoman and a board member and major contributor to the Hall of Fame. Cowboy Hall officials deny the reports and say the decision resulted entirely from unfortunate timing, not the folk singer's controversial left- wing politics.
Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum, Oklahoma's most prestigious repository of Western art and culture, also declined the Guthrie exhibit. According to executive director Brooks Joyner, the decision was not based on "political correctness," but on timing (Gilcrease is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) and the fact that the exhibit, including photographs and memorabilia, was not an exact fit with the museum's mission.
"I'm a Woody Guthrie fan," Joyner said. "My staff are fans."
Meanwhile, Joyner and other movers and shakers in the arts and humanities in Oklahoma, including Betty Price, director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, went to bat to find a state venue for the Guthrie exhibit.
Enter the Oklahoma Historical Society and, in its case, the timing was fortuitous. The society could not accommodate the exhibit's kickoff, because its normal gallery space is not big enough. However, the society is going to be relocating to a new facility and over the next couple of years will be moving and warehousing its collections until the new museum is completed. Officials there were looking for something to do with the empty space until the society vacates its premises and the state Supreme Court moves in. Scheduled dates for the Guthrie exhibit's final tour stop worked out perfectly with the historical society's timetable.
Blackburn said that in addition to showing the Smithsonian's exhibit, the historical society is making plans for a music festival to be held in conjunction with it and for a complementary exhibition from its own collections related to the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and popular music and folk life of the 1930s.
In that regard, Blackburn said, the society has been in touch with Tulsan Guy Logsdon, a recognized authority and author on Southwestern folk culture and music. Logsdon, one of the nation's leading Guthrie experts, compiled a discography of the balladeer's recordings for the Smithsonian.
Blackburn said the historical society's decision to show the Guthrie exhibit was entirely without controversy. "We view Woody first as a cultural icon. There was not a dissenting vote on our board."
It's easy to see why rumors surrounding the Cowboy Hall of Fame's decision would find fertile ground among Guthrie's fans in Oklahoma. Guthrie has always been controversial with Oklahomans -- when they bothered to pay him any attention at all. His hometown for years refused to recognize him as a favorite son.
Born in Okemah in 1912, Guthrie drifted through Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Texas and then on to California, where he became a popular radio singer. His songs -- traditional country ballads spiced with original compositions drawn from his experiences on the road -- struck a chord with transplanted Okies in California and others who had fled the Midwest and Southwest when the agricultural economy collapsed in the 1920s. He drifted on to New York, where he was embraced by the left-wing intellectual community.
Woody's songs celebrated farm and factory workers and protested their exploitation; they ridiculed bankers and bosses. He wrote and drew cartoons for socialist and communist publications. He appeared at labor union rallies. In the 1930s and '40s he became an antifascist and, like many other Americans at the time, sympathized with the pro-worker, pro-peace ideals espoused by the Communist Party (and like many others he became disillusioned with communism when it turned out to be something other than advertised).
Logsdon, for one, doubts Guthrie ever belonged to the Communist Party. "Anyone who knew Woody Guthrie knew that his personality would not support the doctrinaire ideology of communism," Logsdon said in 1989. "His personality didn't fit any kind of organized belief. He was a free spirit, footloose and fancy-free."
One "ism" that Guthrie certainly subscribed to was populism; his songs reflected a firm belief in the innate wisdom and goodness of the common people and a strong distrust of authority, big business, big government or big religion. Again, that is not surprising, given the fact that he was a product of one of the most populist states in the nation.
During a productive period of 17 years, Guthrie penned more than 1,000 songs. Many are long forgotten but many, like "Hard Travelin'" and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" are beloved folk-music evergreens. His signature song, the rousing "This Land Is Your Land," is sung by schoolchildren across the land.
Woody was one of the first folk singers to be called by that term. He was a popular contemporary singer in the 1930s and an inspiration for folk- music revivals in the 1940s and 1960s. His life was marked by triumph and tragedy. About the time he was rediscovered by Bob Dylan and a host of other folkies in the '60s, Guthrie was crippled and palsied by Huntington's disease, an inherited degenerative illness that finally killed him in 1967.
Guthrie and his music are celebrated around the world but too often ignored or disdained in his native state. Fortunately, those who know and admire his work -- and those who would like to -- will have the opportunity for an intimate look at his life and times three years from now in Oklahoma City. Better late than never.
This page was last updated on 10/12/11
County Coordinator Linda Simpson