Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967) was an American singer-songwriter and folk musician whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children's songs, ballads and improvised works. He frequently performed with the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists displayed on his guitar. His best-known song is "This Land Is Your Land." Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. Such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jay Farrar,Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers and Tom Paxton have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.
Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Troubadour." Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States Communist groups, though he was seemingly not a member of any.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie died from complications ofHuntington's disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in thefolk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan
At age 19, Guthrie met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children, Gwendolyn, Sue, and Bill. With the advent of the Dust Bowl era, Guthrie left Texas, leaving Mary behind, and joined the thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for work. Many of his songs are concerned with the conditions faced by these working classpeople.
By the late 1940s, Guthrie's health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), but in 1952, it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder inherited from his mother. Believing him to be a danger to their children, Marjorie suggested he return to California without her; they eventually divorced.
Upon his return to California, Guthrie lived at the Theatricum Botanicum, a summer-stock type theatre founded and owned by Will Geer; with blacklisted singers and actors, he waited out the anti-communist political climate. As his health worsened, he met and married his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk. They had a child, Lorinna Lynn. The couple moved to Fruit Cove, Florida, briefly. They lived in a bus on land called Beluthahatchee, owned by his friend Stetson Kennedy. Guthrie's arm was hurt in a campfire accident when gasoline used to start the campfire exploded. Although he regained movement in the arm, he was never able to play the guitar again. In 1954, the couple returned to New York. Shortly after, Anneke filed for divorce, a result of the strain of caring for Guthrie. Anneke left New York and allowed friends to adopt Lorinna Lynn. Lorinna had no further contact with her birth parents and died in 1973 at the age of nineteen in a car accident in California. After the divorce, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie, re-entered his life and cared for him until his death.
Guthrie, increasingly unable to control his muscles, was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital until 1966, and finally at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center until his death. Marjorie and the children visited Guthrie at Greystone every Sunday. They answered fan mail and played on the hospital grounds. Eventually a longtime fan of Guthrie invited the family to his nearby home for the Sunday visits. This lasted until Guthrie was moved to the Brooklyn State Hospital, which was closer to where Marjorie lived.
When Bob Dylan, who idolized Guthrie and whose early folk career was largely inspired by him, learned that Guthrie was hospitalized in Brooklyn, he was determined to meet his idol. By this time, Guthrie was said to have his "good days" and "bad days". On the good days, Dylan would sing songs to him, and at the beginning Guthrie seemed to warm to Dylan. When the bad days came, Guthrie would berate Dylan. Reportedly on Dylan's last visit, Guthrie did not recognize him.
At the end of his life, Guthrie was largely alone except for family. Because of the progression of Huntington's, he was difficult to be around. Guthrie's illness was essentially untreated, because of a lack of information about the disease. His death helped raise awareness of the disease and led Marjorie to help found the Committee to Combat Huntington's Disease, which became theHuntington's Disease Society of America. None of Guthrie's three remaining children with Marjorie have developed symptoms of Huntington's. Mary Guthrie's son Bill died in an auto-train accident in Pomona, California, at age 23. Mary's other children, Gwendolyn and Sue, suffered from the disease and both died at 41 years of age