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Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (/ˈɡʌθri/; July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967) was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American western folk music; his music, including songs, such as “This Land Is Your Land“, has inspired several generations both politically and musically. He wrote hundreds of country, folk, and children’s songs, along with ballads and improvised works. His album of songs about the Dust Bowl period, Dust Bowl Ballads, is included on Mojo magazine’s list of 100 Records That Changed The World. Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. Songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Hunter, Harry Chapin, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Andy Irvine, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia, Jay Farrar, Bob Weir, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Childers, Sammy Walker, Tom Paxton, AJJ, Brian Fallon, and Sixto Rodríguez have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence. He frequently performed with the slogan “This machine kills fascists” displayed on his guitar.
Guthrie was brought up by middle-class parents in Okemah, Oklahoma, until he was 14, when his mother Mary was hospitalized as a consequence of Huntington’s disease, a fatal hereditary neurological disorder. His father moved to Pampa, Texas, to repay debts from unsuccessful real estate deals. During his early teens, Guthrie learned folk and blues songs from his parents’ friends. He married at 19, but with the advent of the dust storms that marked the Dust Bowl period, he left his wife and three children to join the thousands of Okies who were migrating to California looking for employment. He worked at Los Angeles radio station KFVD, achieving some fame from playing hillbilly music; made friends with Will Geer and John Steinbeck; and wrote a column for the Communist newspaper People’s World from May 1939 to January 1940.
Throughout his life, Guthrie was associated with United States Communist groups, although he did not appear to be a member of any. With the outbreak of World War II and the non-aggression pact the Soviet Union had signed with Germany in 1939, the owners of KFVD radio were not comfortable with Guthrie’s Communist sympathies. He left the station, ending up in New York where he wrote and recorded his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, based on his experiences during the 1930s, which earned him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour”. In February 1940 he wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land“. He said it was a response to what he felt was the overplaying of Irving Berlin‘s “God Bless America” on the radio.
Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children. His son Arlo Guthrie became nationally known as a musician. Guthrie died in 1967 from complications of Huntington’s disease. His first two daughters also died of the disease. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk and country musicians, including mentoring Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.