Woody Guthrie: 1912-1940

Woody Guthrie Boyhood Photo

Woody Guthrie, George and Nora on the porch of their Okemah, Oklahoma home

Born on July 14, 1912 in Okhema, Oklamhoma to Charles and Nora Guthire, Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Guthrie had a difficult early childhood with little formal education.  After his mother was sent to Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, Oklahoma in 1927, Woody joined his extended family in Pampa, Texas, where he eventually taught himself guitar and harmonica.  Soon after meeting Pampa locals, Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker, Woody formed the Corn Cob Trio and later the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band.  In the mid-1930s, he begins to compose songs relating to the Dust Bowl and within two years, is a successful local radio personality.  However, the Great Depression made it difficult for him to supporting his wife and children and like many other “dustbowl refugees”, Guthrie hitch-hiked, walked, and rode freight-trains on his way to California.  During his travels, Woody sang in local saloons, painted signs, and odd jobs in order to support himself. 

After arriving in California, Woody begins working at radio station KFVD singing “old-time” traditional and original songs.  Accompanying by his singing partner, Maxine Crissman, the two gain notoriety for his compositions and musical abilities, particularly among newly relocated “Okies” traveling west and now living in migrant camps.  In the summer of 1938, on assignment for The Light newspaper, Guthrie travels throughout California investigating the living and working of the workers in migrant camps; from this experience, he writes, “Dust Bowl Refugees.” 

Postcard from Woody to Alan Lomax, Library of Congress

Postcard from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax dated September 8, 1941 while Woody was in Oregon on tour with the Almanac Singers.



Woody moved to New York City in the early months of 1940.  Soon after Guthrie’s arrive, he is introduced to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who eventually records four hours of conversation and songs for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song in Washington D.C.  In New York, he becomes closely associated with Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Josh White and other performers.  During summer of 1940, Guthrie begins to write his semi-autobiographical amount of his Dust Bowl years, Bound for Glory; and in the spring records Dust Bowl Ballads for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey; the album is released in July. 

Woody Guthrie Biography
Woody Guthrie: 1912-1940