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Woody Guthrie Turns 100

Woody Guthrie
Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

Folk music icon Woody Guthrie, one of the most important figures in the history of American music, was born July 14, 1912, 100 years ago today. Armed with a guitar bearing the phrase, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his life, many of which are still being recorded today.

His influence on classic rock is most famously realized in the work of Bob Dylan, who had read Guthrie’s autobiography, ‘Bound for Glory,’ in 1960. Shortly thereafter, he moved to New York to meet Guthrie and the two struck up a friendship. By this time Guthrie had been hospitalized in Brooklyn from Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurological condition that would claim his life on Oct. 3, 1967. Dylan’s ‘Song to Woody’ was one of two originals on his 1962 debut album. He also wrote a poem, ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,’ which he recited at a 1963 concert.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie began playing guitar and harmonica while growing up in Okemah, Okla. He eventually made his way to Los Angeles to look for work in the 1930s when the Dust Bowl made conditions in the Midwest untenable. Guthrie got a gig singing country and folk songs on the radio, but moved to New York in 1940, where he made his first album, ‘Dust Bowl Ballads.’

In the mid-1940s, Guthrie rose to fame through his albums for Folkways, where they influenced an entire movement. His most famous song, ‘This Land is Your Land,’ was recorded during this period. Guthrie originally wrote the song in 1940 as an angry response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America,’ but did not commit it to vinyl until 1944. Neil Young covered it on his most recent album, ‘Americana.’

Bruce Springsteen, whose reading of a Guthrie biography in the early-1980s influenced his subsequent work, performed ‘This Land is Your Land’ at more than 100 concerts between 1980 and 1985 and released a version on his ‘Live 1975-85′ box set. Springsteen has also performed or recorded Guthrie’s songs such as ‘I Ain’t Got No Home,’ ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ and ‘Vigilante Man’ over the years.

Guthrie’s work wasn’t restricted to political songs. He wrote many children’s songs, Jewish songs (with his mother-in-law, a Yiddish poet), ballads and also recorded many traditional songs. Even when he wasn’t recording, Guthrie was an incredibly prolific artist. His archives contain thousands of lyrics, poems, and artwork that have never seen the light of day.

Over the past 20 years, his daughter Nora, who runs the Woody Guthrie Foundation, has commissioned artists to write music for his unreleased lyrics so that his music lives on for new generations to discover. The most famous of these projects is the ‘Mermaid Avenue’ collaboration of the late-1990s between Wilco and English songwriter Billy Bragg, which resulted in three albums worth of music. One of Bragg’s best songs, 1991′s ‘You Woke Up My Neighborhood’ was inspired by one of Guthrie’s drawings.

Woody Guthrie married three times and fathered eight children. His son, Arlo, has had a long and successful career carrying on his father’s legacy of fighting social injustice through song and activism. His most famous songs are ‘Coming Into Los Angeles’ and the 18-minute talking blues ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,’ which has become a staple on folk music radio programs every Thanksgiving.

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