Woody Guthrie died in 1967 in Brooklyn State Hospital in New York. By that time Huntington's diseasee had ravaged his entire nervous system, rendering him unable to speak or move. He had been diagnosed in 1952 when he was just 40 years old.
Woody was an alcoholic par excellence. He was a brilliant artist. He wrote an incredible number of songs – songs which often have a greater impact when simply read. Ironically, his prose is as lyrical as his poems and songs. Altogether he produced over 3000 works.
With his music he described the plight of the migrant workers, the miners, the dust bowlers, and any other downtrodden group. The U.S. State Department commissioned him to write songs promoting the building of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State. Woody completed twenty-six songs in thirty days.
Woody actively supported the Communist Party but when the U.S. was attacked in 1941 he immediately began writing patriotic songs. He detested Irving Berlin’s sappy God Bless America and decided to write the amazing This Land Is your Land, which his loyal friend Pete Seeger, and many others, have sung to this day. Woody’s folk music has lasted generations and it had a huge impact on the music of the 60s.
Irony of ironies. Pete Seeger is being interviewed on NPR as I write this. He's been talking about Woody and is now beginning to sing This Land Is Your Land.
Joe Klein wrote the biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, in 1980. I picked it up several years ago at a used bookstore. It has been sitting on a shelf since then. A couple of weeks ago I began reading it and it will probably be the only book that I ever read a second time immediately after the first. There are so many layers, so much cause and effect, so many intricasies that it's not till the last part of the book that all the threads are tied together. To understand the end you have to go back to the beginning.
UPDATE: PBS is showing Woody Guthrie on American Masters 11/30 - at least here in Nashville.