A nice diversion for our short time in Phoenix and Scottsdale, is a concert over in Phoenix at the Herberger Theater on Wednesday evening. Woody Guthrie’s American Song celebrates one of America’s most legendary song writers. His songs about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, high unemployment, and the war were juxtaposed with songs about the joy and happiness of being alive, and of course, being an American. Guthrie travels, or rather stumbles across the country, from New York, to California. This show features over two dozen of is songs, including Bound for Glory, and This Land Is Your Land.
This lively show debuted in 1989, and has traveled with great success throughout the United States. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. His father was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician. He taught Woody Indian songs, Western songs, and Scottish folk songs. His mother, born in nearby Kansas, was also musically inclined, and was a profound influence on Woody. Though slightly built, Woody was a precocious youngster, and unconventional from the start. The landscape, people, and music around him made lasting impressions on him.
But tragedy struck, in terms of personal losses, first the accidental death of his older sister, Clara. This was followed by the financial ruin of his family. Then his mother was institutionalized, and later died. Woody’s family and home life were forever devastated. But in 1920, oil was discovered and Okemah became an oil boom town. But when the oil flow stopped, Okemah became a town of busted, disgusted, and not to be trusted. From these experiences, Woody took to the open road.
He left for Texas panhandle town of Pampa in 1931, and met and married Mary Jennings in 1933. They had three children. His wife’s older brother, and musician, Matt Jennings, and Cluster Baker formed the Corn Cob Trio and later the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. During this time, he also discovered drawing and painting, that he would pursue the rest of his life.
With the Great Depression, followed by the Great Dust Storm, Woody and most other farmers and unemployed workers found it impossible to work. So, they headed for Route 66, hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked to California. They took small jobs. In exchange for room and board, Woody painted signs, and played guitar and sang in saloons along the way. He developed a love for travel and the open road, eventually becoming a lifelong habit.
When he finally arrived in California, he was called an Okie by the residents. But in Los Angeles, he landed a job at KFVD, singing old-time traditional songs as well as original songs. He started to attract a decent audience, particularly with the many transplanted Oklahomans. His songs provided nostalgia and entertainment, a real respite from the life they left behind. Woody also used the airwaves to showcase his controversial commentary and criticism. He soon became an advocate for truth, fairness, and justice. This role eventually weaved its way into his song writing.
Woody headed to New York in 1940, and was embraced for his Steinbeck style wisdom, and his musical authenticity by left wingers. He was finally recorded later that year by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He also recorded “Dust Bowl Ballads” for RCA , his first album of original songs of the 1940s. Then he recorded hundreds of discs for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. In NYC, many famous musicians became friends and musical collaborators. These included Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Millard Lampell, Will Greer, and Sis Cunningham. He formed a loosely knit group of singers called the Almanac Singers, who took up social causes. Through these songs, Woody became a prominent songwriter. And the Almanacs established folk music as a viable portion of popular music. With this increasing popularity, success, and his own radio show, Woody could finally move his family to New York City.
Despite success, Woody tired of the New York scene, and took his family to Portland, OR. He was actually on the payroll of the Bonneville Power Authority, when he composed a series of songs about the Columbia River. When the contract expired, he took the family back to Pampa. He hitchhiked his way back to New York, with hopes of getting back on the radio. As he became more radical, his first marriage ended.
He then met a young dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia. They were married in 1945, and had four children, one of which is Arlo. With this domestic stability, Woody turned out hundreds of songs, writings, drawings, paintings, poetry and prose. His first novel, Bound for Glory, was published in 1943, to critical acclaim. During World War 2, he served in the Merchant Marines and the Army, as he fought Fascism. His songs were anti-Hitler, and pro war. The Navy used him to write songs about the danger of venereal diseases.
Following the war, he returned to New York, where he began to write children’s books that became classics. He was also exposed to the Jewish community through his mother in law. He started writing songs reflecting Jewish culture. But in the late 1940s, his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was at the beginning of a disease, Huntington’s Chorea, a neurological disease, which had originally claimed his mother. With this erratic behavior, he left for California, where he met Anneke Van Kirk, who became his third wife. They had just a single daughter.
As anti-Communist sentiment
built-in the 40s and 50s, Woody and some of his friends became a target for their activist stances. They were soon blacklisted, so Woody headed to Florida, where he composed a third novel, Seeds of Man. As the disease progressed, Woody became increasingly erratic. He returned to New York with Anneke. In 1954, he was admitted to a psych hospital. Marjorie continued to visit and care for him. A new generation of folk artists visited Woody in the hospital. They included Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Greenbriar Boys, Phil Ochs and many others.
Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967, at Creedmoor State Hospital, in Queens, NY. A month later, his son, Arlo Guthrie, released his first commercial recording, Alice’s Restaurant, which became an anti-war anthem for the next generation. In his lifetime, Woody Guthrie wrote over 3000 song lyrics, published two novels, created art works, poetry, prose, and plays. Much of it resides in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City. He has received numerous awards for his work. In 1998, the Smithsonian Institution created a major travelling exhibit of his work. He continues to inspire the greats of the music industry.
It was truly a night a fun and nostalgia here in downtown Phoenix. This Land Is MY Land!!!!!