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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

The letters by, to, and about Woody Guthrie in the collection, Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950 provide a unique look at an important figure in the history of United States culture. Materials also pertain to the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and an early director of the Archive, Alan Lomax. Readers will also learn about folk music, the early radio and recording industries, and early-twentieth-century social history. (Transcripts of the correspondence are included in the collection).

Woody Guthrie

This collection of 53 letters by, about, and to Woody Guthrie provides the opportunity to learn about a major figure in Unites States culture, his life, and its significance. The collection's Special Presentations, Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie and Timeline of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), are a good place to start. They provide an overview of his life, while the collection's letters provide a closer look at Guthrie through his own words.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, when the state itself was just five years old. He describes his childhood in Okemah in an autobiographical essay:

"Back in the early day when folks was a crowding into Oklahoma from other states to get a piece of land and buy farms and stuff like that, they had some hard times, and some tough people, and some good times, and good people. My dad was the first clerk of the county court in the little town of Okemah, Okfusee County, right after statehood - and he was interested in real estate and a raising champion poland china hogs - but he hadn't raised the hogs as yet, on account of his politics. He was one of the old time fist fighting democrats and his fist fights kept him so busy that he raised more dust on the street corners and around in the pool halls and alleys in a fight, than anything else."

From Autobiographical Essay (page 1).

  • What kind of a place was Okemah, Oklahoma when Guthrie was growing up? How do you think his hometown might have shaped him?
  • What can you tell from his autobiographical essay about how Guthrie felt about his hometown?
  • What were Guthrie's parents like? What was his family life like growing up?
  • What kinds of jobs did Guthrie have as a youngster?
  • Why was Guthrie forced to move from Okemah when he was 15?
  • How would you characterize Guthrie's childhood?

In 1940, Guthrie moved to New York City. By this time, he had started a family, traveled extensively in the southern and western United States, written countless songs, and become a popular radio personality in California. But it was in New York City during the 40s that his career as a songwriter and folk artist really took off.

  • How did Guthrie's interest and skills in music develop?
  • What were Guthrie's songs about?
  • Why did Guthrie travel to California in 1936?
  • What did he do while in California? How did his experiences there impact him?
  • Why did Guthrie move to New York City in 1940?
  • Why did his career take off when he moved to New York City?

Most of the collection's letters were written during this important period in Guthrie's life, and can be located in the index of Correspondence in Sequence. Several, including a letter that Guthrie wrote to Lomax in July of 1940, mention the people, performances, and projects that Guthrie was involved with as he emerged as a leader in the growing folk music community:

"Pete has been to Wisconsin with the Youths. He's back now. We been singing around at the puppet workshop and other places... Going up to Camp Lakeland today and sing there tonight. Then 2 bookings here in New York tomorrow night. Then Sunday we're going out to the Staten Island with the Spanish Relief Committee. Went to a party out at Bill Groppers house last week and got drunker'n old billy hell. I sung at the bar and everybody bought me drinks... It was a howling success with everybody howling about my singing."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, ca. late July 1940 (page 1).

  • What kinds of projects was Guthrie involved in during the 1940s?
  • What business did Guthrie have with radio stations, recording companies, and the Library of Congress during this decade?
  • With whom did Guthrie perform?
  • For what kinds of audiences did Guthrie perform?
  • How did Guthrie earn money while living in New York?
  • What did Guthrie write and sing about during the 1940s?
  • What was going on in Guthrie's personal life during this period?

A series of letters and postcards written between January and April of 1941 represent a period of time that Guthrie spent on the West Coast. Frustrated with the commercialism and upper class conservatism of New York City, Guthrie took his family to California to relocate. Guthrie performed on the radio and wrote songs about the Bonneville Dam for the Department of the Interior, but returned to New York City that summer. In some of these letters, Guthrie took the opportunity to share personal insights with Lomax:

"You have seen just as great a day and time as the next feller if you only stop for a minute every once in a while to set down, I mean stand up, and think the whole thing over - everything you've lived and seen, and the times and conditions that you have seen and lived through have made you just exactly what you are and if an actor, dancer, artist, or singer, or what not, even a ditch digger, whether you're a good one or not all depends on how hard you work to fix whatever it is you're working at for the folks thats going to get the good of it."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, September 25, 1940 (page 1).

  • What happened to Guthrie during his trip to California?
  • Why did he return to New York City the following summer?
  • What do Guthrie's letters suggest about his values and character?

Eventually, Guthrie remarried and started a new family while he was living in New York City. In his letter to the Archive of American Folk Song on March 14, 1946, and his follow-up letter to Duncan Emrich on March 29, Guthrie included some remarks about his daughter, Cathy, who tragically died in a fire the following year. Guthrie had three more children, but by 1951 he could no longer live with his family due to a disease that was altering his behavior. Though his condition deteriorated, his influence continued to grow even beyond his death in 1967. In his letter of March 14, Guthrie wrote a playful summary of his achievements:

"I am a folk singer and composer of songs and ballads in the folk vein, writer of stories and articles along the same track, and my name is listed quite a number of times in all of your catalogs.... I have taken part in Fourteen albums of Commercial records and have Five albums out under my own name as a guitar player, harmonica blower, and a singer. I have done songs and ballads for the Department of the Interior about the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River, and the Grand Coulee Dam. And in addition to this have worked on all of the major radio nets, for all sorts of rallies of labor and the people, made up several hundred songs which are on the edge and rim of being published. I have been married twice and once to an Irish girl, once to a dancer, and have four children..."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Archive of American Folk Song, March 14, 1946 (page 1) .

  • What kind of a family life did Guthrie have? What can you tell about what kind of a father he was?
  • What do you think Guthrie hoped to accomplish in his life?
  • What do his actions and decisions throughout his life suggest about his character and values?
  • What do you think Guthrie contributed to United States culture?