October 10th, 2012
Woody Guthrie
Ain't Got No Home

He was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912, 12 days after the Democrats nominated his namesake for the presidency of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie — “Woody” almost immediately — was Charley Guthrie’s son and like his father ever the optimist. He was Nora’s son too, hers the gift of old songs, and a dreadful fear he would inherit her madness.

Together they raised Woody, his two brothers and two sisters in a middle-class, foredoomed home the neighbors judged one of the finest in that farming community turned oil boom town.

Life in Okemah might have been comfortable, with cotton prices up and beef down, but for the fires.

Fire was to dog Woody, boy and man. A kerosene lamp shattered – the OKEMAH LEDGER reported it as an accident, while folks in town whispered otherwise – and flames consumed his beloved older sister Clara, the one who called him “Woodblock,” when the boy was just months shy of his seventh birthday.

Another blaze leveled the family home, sending the Guthries to live in the weathered London house, high on the weedy hillside overlooking the Fort Smith and Western depot at the foot of Columbia Street.

There were other fires, unexplained. Woody was not yet 15 when his mother hurled a kerosene lamp at a dozing Charley, searing his chest from neck to navel. Members of Charley’s Masonic Lodge arranged to send Nora to the state asylum in Norman.

Years later, and half a continent distant, a short circuit in a newly repaired radio sent flames racing through the child’s bedding, and took the life of Woody’s charming daughter Cathy Ann, “Stackabones,” the youngster who inspired so many of her father’s magical songs for children.

And near the end of his wanderings, Woody splashed gasoline on a Florida campfire; it flared and severely burned his right arm. The puckered scars would leave him unable play guitar. He was left mute, the once restless youth turned rebel now a man resigned to his mother’s fate.

Guthrie was just 42 when he entered the hospital for the last time in 1954. His period of true creativity had spanned no more than eight or nine years, though in that time, he had traveled far, seen wonders and known defeats, and written as many as 1,400 songs. He had traveled Route 66, he boasted, enough to run it up to 6,666, back and forth, across the county as whim and winds took him.

All the while, he never seemed to find what he was looking for.

Marjorie, his second wife, came closest to replacing the mother Woody had lost when Nora was committed to the asylum. But Marjorie put their children first.

Woody sought, needed, so desperately a cause to believe in. Advocating a program of social and economic justice, the Communist Party, USA, offered that and more, but party apparatchiks never asked him to be a member.

Woody reached out to acquaintances – he who knew almost everyone – but could allow close only a bare handful of those he had called upon. There was Huddie Ledbetter, the huge black man pardoned from Louisiana’s dreaded Parchman Farm, and Huddie’s wife, Martha, who opened their Greenwich Village flat to Guthrie. There was Pete Seeger, who would later make Guthrie’s songs so well known; and actor Will Geer, Guthrie’s tutor in Marxist orthodoxy; Jim Longhi, a merchant marine buddy and future lawyer; and Gilbert Houston, stalwart, handsome, the would-be movie star they all called “Cisco.” Those few Woody let in, and damned few others, including the succession of women who sought to mother him and ended up in his bed.

Despite the rich legacy of his songs, still sung four decades after his death from Huntington’s disease, Guthrie was at best an indifferent guitar player, his efforts at Mother Maybelle Carter’s “lick” haphazard.

At the same time, he was a sterling musician. He played harmonica well, if backwards, with the bass notes on the right rather than the left. At other times he played bass fiddle, washboard, spoons, bones, straws, whatever came to hand, rhythmically underpinning other, better players. It bothered him not at all.

He might have been a middling fiddle or mandolin player had he practiced, but he knew he would never be as good as his boyhood friend Matt Jennings. Over the years Matt the butcher would master as many as 600 fiddle tunes. Woody probably never used more than 30 or 40, mostly borrowed melodies, for his 400-plus-recorded songs. Good enough was good enough for Woody Guthrie.

Come spring, an itch came over him, a need to see beyond the next hill, beyond the county line to the next town and the next. He hated riding the rails, fearing railroad bulls and mutilation if he fell beneath a freight car. He preferred instead to travel by thumb, with a handful of paintbrushes shoved in a back pocket. If a song or two didn’t earn a meal in a café or a drink in a bar, he could always paint a few signs or a storefront for 50 cents – enough to last him for a day or two if he didn’t share it with the other hobos camped along a siding just out of town. Mostly he shared it, if he didn’t plain give it away.

He was, like Walt Whitman, whose “swimmy” poetry he disdained, a tangle of unresolved contradictions. And like Whitman, he embraced multitudes.

He was a faithful correspondent, writing, pouring on the page word pictures of startling beauty, letters so compelling that friends kept them for years to read and reread.

He was an unfaithful husband, flitting from lover to lover as easily and as often as he pawned his Sears Roebuck guitar.

He fathered eight children by three wives, and perhaps a ninth, unacknowledged. He left the raising of the first three to his first wife, doted on the next four with Marjorie, and, lost in illness, ignored the last of the children by a third wife. Yet he had such regard for his “manly seed” that he refused to pay for a hotel-room abortion when one of his on-again lovers discovered herself pregnant. His singing companion Cisco Houston secretly gave the frightened girl the $500.

Unconcerned about money, he was generous – to a fault. Guthrie would give away his day’s wages to a migrant family when his own children had to rely on an aunt for dinner. He was just as likely to give his jacket to a shivering fruit picker, his meal to a gaunt mother, or his last pennies to a grimy kid who had never eaten a Tootsie Roll, or drunk a Delaware Punch.

A radio-wise professional by the time he landed in New York City, he played the country boy just off the turnip truck. Well read – particularly in psychology and Eastern religions – he drawled terse comments and aphorisms seemingly sprung from the wind-whipped soil of the Dust Bowl, but more often his own droll wordplay.

Guthrie walked out on a weekly CBS radio show — and its lavish salary — because a sponsor wanted to tell him what to sing on the air. Yet he would meekly accept Communist Party censorship of his unpaid articles for THE DAILY WORKER.

He knew drifters and movie stars, migrant workers and Skid Row barflies, Martha Graham dancers and dance hall floozies, abstract expressionists Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell, as well as their wives, girl-friends, and lovers.

And he wrote about them all – in diaries, on random sheets of wrapping paper, on paper bags laid open to catch his torrent of words, his cascade of images, metaphors, allusions, and illusions. He put his name to his autobiography, but shared his royalties with the editor who transformed his bulky manuscript into a rambling narrative. The book was largely fiction – an “autobiographical novel,” Guthrie called it – while his unpublished fiction was real, the stuff of his own life and times.

He was Woody in all his contradictions and complexities – the man you see and hear in Peter Frumkin’s sterling documentary.
– Ed Cray

A professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, Ed Cray is the author of RAMBLIN’ MAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WOODY GUTHRIE.

  • frankie

    Parchman Farm: Mississippi — not Louisiana.

  • Martin Edelman

    Any remembrances from his time living in Coney Island?

  • Abby Blatt

    My late mother, the choreographer Sophie Maslow, introduced Marjorie to Woody. Marjorie was a member of my mother’s dance company. My mother was choreographing a dance called FOLKSAY and wanted Woody to sing live on stage so she went to visit him with Marjorie and that’s how they met. Marjorie was instrumental in making FOLKSAY a success because she wrote out all the counts of the dance for Woody so he could play the songs the same way every time. Woody sang to me when I was born and gave me my nick name, “Abigailey.” To fact check this info, please consult the Woody Guthrie website for his daughter Nora’s story confirming this information. FOLKSAY was recently beautifully revived, as well as DUST BOWL BALLADS, a dance my mother choreographed to two of Woody’s songs. I treasure my mother’s legacy and am so fortunate that Woody’s has so richly contributed to that legacy.

  • Tosten

    While teaching in China the kids in my class rewrote This Land Is My Land to Chinese places and words. It was sung at an assembly by the entire student body of 2000 students and fit beautifully in that nation of millions of migrant workers and overbearing bosses. I looked out over a darkened auditorium and saw the headmaster beaming in the front row. This is what his music is about, It carries a message to and also from anyone who sings those songs. It gives the soul a way to express itself.

  • seamus kearney

    His music inspires interpretation. An example is that of the last version of “This Land is Your Land” sung on the video. It is beautiful and worthy of more identification so I can buy it. Who are the performers?

  • Robert F. Burns

    I greatly enjoyed your program on Woody`s life.
    His date of birth was 7/14/12 but what was the exact date of his passing in 1967?

  • Michael J Cinelli

    Growing up in NY I heard many different opinions of Guthrie’s politics. As I aged,the talk seemed to peter out, and the music came to the forefront, as it should. I moved to Tennessee to raise my children. At a school fuction I had tears in my eyes when I heard the children singing, This Land is Your Land. 50 years ago it would have been booed as ‘commie propaganda’, but that day it was cheered. I wondered if anyone else saw the irony. Music touches the soul. That’s why I cried.

  • Steven Barnes

    Parchman Farm is in Mississippi not in Louisiana. Leadbelly was in Angola Prison Farm.

  • kesar

    I wish you could put this out as a computer video. I used to watch PBS on TV until the transmitter at the Baculite mesa near Pueblo CO was taken to Cheyenne mountain near Colorado Springs. Maybe it serves more people now but we miss it.

  • Robert Kusel

    The beautiful version of “This Land Is Your Land” that Seamus refers to comes from the cast album of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song”.
    It was released by Cleveland International Records. You can also find the single on iTunes.

  • E. Gregory Drake

    I am now 62 and Woodie Guthrie has been one of my heroes since I first discovered his music in 1963. We need more people like him today. He would be disgusted with the way this country has turned into a selfish me first country. My dad was an Okie who road the freights to find work during the depression all over the western part of this country. I can’t say enough about Woodie! If communism means helping people who haven’t anyone to help them, maybe we should all be communists!

  • Robert Kusel

    The elegant version of “This land Is Your Land” that Seamus inquires about comes from the cast album of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.”

  • michael hendrick

    i think that due to the show coming out at the same time funding was being cut to a lot of PBS stations in Pennsylvania, it was not shown in the usual rotation for this series. i waited months to see it and only managed to catch the last 20 minutes at about 3am one morning.
    can you please put this back on a schedule for rotation or put it up on the website, please?
    i think many people missed it and many people really ought to know more about woody!

  • Kate

    Does anyone know who the narrator was for Woody Guthrie’s “Ain’t got no home”?

  • Peter

    The narrator for this film is Peter Coyote, an accomplished film and television actor.

  • Spero

    Just caught this tonight. Where was that vintage footage of the bluesman/field recording taken from? I need to see the rest of THAT!

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  • Tony

    Hello, I loved the artical and it was really helpful to me in many ways. Thanks!!!

  • chris b

    Arlo Guthrie. Woodys son is on facebook he will answer most of your questions you have, about woody,if he knows or he will try and find out. And get back to you. he seems very nice. And he does some of Woodys songs at his concerts. Excellent preformer very talented, I guess Woodys music lives on through cds but mainly Arlo the way he does them.

  • Richard Levine

    Is this CD the same one I watched very early this morning (6/01/10) on PBS in New Jersey? It was narrated by Peter Coyote but also had Pete Seeger, Nora Guthrie, Mary Jennings, his first wife and other people speaking about him. Played his union songs, children songs, etc. I want to make sure I just purchased the right one. It was called Woody Guthrie, American Masters.
    Thank you

  • home bedding

    I had to take a break half way. You really wrote a small novel here. All in all I have to say it was nice to see such recognition of Woody!

  • Terry Killian

    Arlo Guthrie was not mentioned at all and was not interviewed in this episode. Why?

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  • Stephani RayLynn Gatlin!!!


  • Laura Smith

    Arlo Guthrie. Woodys son is on facebook he will answer most of your questions you have, about woody,if he knows or he will try and find out. Excellent preformer very talented, I guess Woodys music lives on through cds but mainly Arlo the way he does them. can you please put this back on a schedule for rotation or put it up on the website, please?
    i think many people missed it and many people really ought to know more about woody!

  • Blessing Onuegbu

    He died in October 3,1967 im doing a biography on him so many facts

  • Marinda Klees

    Wonderfully crafted response! Hope all is well Steve.

  • Brandt Hardin

    The world still needs Woody Guthrie! He stood up for the little man and the working class. He fought for the rights of the common person and helped spread the ideal that this is truly “our land.” I paid tribute to the legendary musician with a portrait of Woody which you can see on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/07/woody-guthrie-centennial.html where you can drop by and let me know how Woody’s voice has spoken to you as well.

  • Teddy Pescadero

    Woodie Guthrie is one of my most favorite people. Not a lot of people know about him but he is certainly born for stardom.

  • Carol Mitchell

    I remember listening to Woody Guthrie songs on the radio when I was a child. In college I met a guy with a 12 string guitar and we decided to work up an act. We sang as many Guthrie songs as we could find and also some Kingston Trio works. It was an odd combination but it worked well.
    I never got to see either of the Guthrie’s in person.

  • Belle Parmet

    Why was this program not played at a reasonable hour on PBS in the Philadelphia area?

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  • Hugh

    Was that Dwight Yoakum commenting?

  • JAKE

    loved the show on american masters-want to know who the commentaors were-thx

  • Richard Southern

    I spent a decent amount of time in my life reading about Woody, Cisco, Josh, Pete and Lefty Lou. I enjoyed this program very much. My only complaint is this: Do not mistake or imply that “Hobo’s Lullaby” is a song written by Woody. He said it was his favorite song, but he didn’t write it. Fellow named Goebel Reeves was the composer. I keep hearing the song slid in between Woody’s songs in soundtracks which seems to suggest to me that Woody wrote it.

  • Dana Lavigne

    Why is it I can not stream this program?
    I so appreciate this treatment of Woody’s Life.
    I missed the first half hour and would love to see the whole thing and share this wonderful program with friends and family.

  • Cathey Dohman

    You may have not intended to do so, but I believe you’ve got managed to express the state of mind that a lot of folks are in. The sense of wanting to help, but not knowing how or wherever, is a thing a lot of us are going through.

  • anita petraske

    why david gelfin 20 times and woody gutherie only once? please do again i missed it

  • Wagonjak

    I always admired Woody Guthrie for his songs about the poor, the workers, the downtrodden, but this amazing documentary was a mind-blower. Hadn’t realized the depth and raw genius of the man. I have recommended it to all my friends and acquaintances. If anyone reading this gets a chance to watch it, please don’t miss the chance!

  • healthy dog

    My mother has always been a fan of Guthrie that’s why I admire him too. This article showed more of him and I’m very thankful for it.

  • Dick Custer

    I’ve seen a few other programs about Woody Guthrie, but this one is special. It doubles as a fascinating history of the US from 1912 to 1967, through the lens of Guthrie’s inspirations and his output that followed. It also makes an elegant case that “This Land is Your Land…..” should be our national anthem. For one thing, it’s singable. For another, it’s not martial, and it’s symbolism isn’t stale.

  • Brad James

    Ya’ll come on down to the Woody Guthrie music festival in Okemah OK. It’s always about 3 or 4 days around Woody’s birthday of July 14th. I’ll be there so, look for me and say hi.


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