Dave Powell

Woody Guthrie: A Life


Part One: A Picture From Life’s Other Side (1912-31)

Woody Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father, Charley, was a politician, speculator, and rabble-rouser who taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes. His mother, Nora, had been born in Kansas and had a profound impact on her son as he grew.

According to his official biography, Woody was “slightly built, with an extremely full and curly head of hair,” a “precocious and unconventional boy from the start.”[1] Describing his hometown, Woody said that it was “one of the singingest, square-dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun-, club-, and razor-carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns—because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom towns.”[2] The Guthrie family was prosperous in Woody’s early years, but that prosperity was precarious: being a boom town, Okemah represented, in many ways, the worst shades of the American personality. It was a place that encouraged aggressive behavior in the pursuit of money, and a place where vigilante justice was often meted out without compunction. In 1911, just before Woody was born, a mob lynched Laura Nelson and her 14-year-old son, L.D. L.D. Nelson had been accused of shooting and killing George Loney, Okemah’s deputy sheriff, while the police searched the Nelson family’s home for a missing cow. Woody’s father, Charley, was said to have been a member of the posse that seized Laura and L.D. from their cell and lynched them from a bridge over the Canadian River; photographs of the lynching were taken by a local photographer, George Henry Farnum, and distributed as postcards. Woody would later write at least three songs about lynching in Okemah: “Don’t Kill My Baby and Son,” “High Balladree,” and “Slipknot.” Oil was discovered in 1920 but the wells dried up shortly thereafter; as Woody would later say, “we got the grease.”

The Guthries had their share of personal tragedy too. In 1920, when Woody was seven, his older sister Clara was killed in a mysterious fire.[3] After Clara’s death, his mother’s physical and psychological health continued a rapid decline. Although it wouldn’t be discovered and understood until many years later, Nora Guthrie was suffering from Huntington’s Chorea, a degenerative disease that results in movement disorders as well as cognitive and psychological impairments. Woody described the terrifying fits of rage that would strike his mother without warning, even as he tried to draw closer to her. She taught him old songs, like the mournful hymn “A Picture From Life’s Other Side,” and occasionally took young Woodrow to the movies—which is where she seemed happiest.[4] But, in general, Woody’s home life was tumultuous. In June of 1927, when Woody was almost 16, his father, Charley, was also injured in a mysterious fire.[5] After the fire, Charley boarded a train for Texas to convalesce and recuperate; Nora was sent to the state mental hospital in Norman. Woody would see his mother before she died, with her memory of him flickering; he couldn’t even be sure she knew who he was. On his way out the door, she said “You’re Woodrow,” but his mother was no longer there. No doubt these feelings swirled in his head when Woody would later write and record songs like “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore”:

I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wanderin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Continue to Part Two


[1] http://www.woodyguthrie.org/biography1

[2] Harold Leventhal & Dave Marsh (Eds.), Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

[3] Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: Random House, 1980 (pp. 19-21).

[4] Klein, pp 26-27.

[5] Klein, pp. 31-34.

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