My Life (Part I) (1947)

The Guthrie family on their porch

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Song Lyrics

Some of Woody's Prose...

The Almanac Singers



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My grandfather, Charlie Guthrie, had this beautiful handwriting and was the clerk of the courts out in that part of the Oklahoma. He wrote newspaper articles about one thing or another and owned a lot of different properties and was into cattle and oil. His ancestors came from Texas five generations before him. With the collapse of Wall Street and the drought, farming had hit these guys with a one-two knock out. Millions of people just like my dad and granddad picked up and left. Imagine what it takes to leave when you've got family history and burial history. It was not easy to do, but it was easier to do that than to stay.

People think he [Woody] left home to be a singer, but he didn't. His ability was actually as a painter. He was a very talented artist. He left home with brushes, not a guitar, and he made his first living painting sign. Later he picked up guitar and started singing the songs that his mother would sing him. They were the songs that her family had probably handed down for generations in Scotland and wherever they were from before that. My dad in saw the wisdom of learning to deal with other people and started stealing their tunes and writing them into his stories and songs. He sort of picked everyone up in his songs and made them see what they had in common.

Arlo Guthrie interview for
"American Roots Music", PBS 2001.

Okemah was an Oklahoma farming town since the early days, and it had about an equal number of Indians, Negroes, and Whites doing their trading there. It had a railroad called the Fort Smith and Western -- and there was no guarantee that you'd get any certain place any certain time by riding it. Our most famous railroad man was called "Boomer Swenson," and every time Boomer come to a spot along the rails where he'd run over somebody, he'd pull down on his whistle cord and blow the longest, moaningest, saddest whistle that ever blew on any man's railroad.

Ours was just another one of those little towns, I guess, about a thousand or so people, where everybody knows everybody else; and on your way to the post office, you'd nod and speak to so many friends that your neck would be rubbed raw when you went in to get your mail if there was any. It took you just about an hour to get up through town, say hello, talk over the late news, family gossip, sickness, weather, crops and lousy politics. Everybody had something to say about something, or somebody, and you usually knew almost word for word what it was going to be about before you heard them say it, as we had well-known and highly expert talkers on all subjects in and out of this world.

Woody Guthrie, Bound For Glory,
NYC, NY, 1983 (Penguin edition), p. 37.

The Okemah, OK house in which Woody grew up

Woody came up in a frontier place in Oklahoma, Injun territory, which was new country, in an oil boom. And everything was happening there. The town was full of Injuns, Mexicans, blacks, people from all over the country, and Woody lived in those honky-tonks, and he picked up his guitar, and he learned how to make music that would make sense to all those folks.

It was composed of ragtime, hillbilly, blues, of all the currents of his time. He made a new idiom that really represented the opening of this new Western frontier of new highways and power lines and Dust Bowl migrants and all that. It had the sound of movement in it. His guitar has the sound of a big truck going down the highway with the riders bouncing around in the front seat.

It was a new idiom and really, all America really responded to that. The whole world!

Alan Lomax interview for
"American Roots Music", PBS 2001.

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Mary Josephine (Woody's sister) and Woody remember...
(Real Audio, 373 KB)

MY MOTHER'S NAME was Nora Belle Tanner, and then she changed it to NORA BELLE GUTHRIE. Her mother was Mrs. Lee Tanner, one of the earliest log cabin school teachers in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. The tales of the river bottom school house on the Deep Fork were full of the wild oat, the panther, the coyote, the overgrown wolf, the mountain lion, and the fights between man and beast to settle Okfuskee County. It was in the quicksands and muds of the river's rising, the wind that blew and whipped from east to west in a spit second, the lightning that splintered the barn loft, the snakey tailed cyclone, prairie cloudbursts, the months of fiery drouth that crippled the leaves, in the timber fires, prairie fires that took more than it could build back, in the fights of the men against all of these, that I was born, the third child in our family, and heard my mother sing to my brother, Roy, and to my sister, Clara.

MY FATHER'S NAME WAS CHARLES EDWARD GUTHRIE, born down in Bell County, Texas, in the scruboak and short cotton country. They called him Charlie, and he had almost as much of the singing blood in him as Mama had.

I am pretty positive that my mother's father, Lee Tanner, was an Irishman, and that my grandmother, Mrs. Lee Tanner, was Scottish. My mother learned all of the songs and ballads that her parents knew, and there were lots that were neither Scotch nor Irish, but Mexican, Spanish, and many made up by the Negroes in the South. This was not all that melted into the songs that I heard around me, because my Father, Charlie, was always out talking, dancing, drinking and trading with the Indians. He could speak several Creek words, taught me how to count in Chickasaw or Choctaw, Cherokee, Sioux, Osage, or Seminole dialect. From a shirt tearing boy papa had grown up to a straight talking man, a trained fist fighter in the days when Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey were sung like songs. Charlie grew up to be as clever a trader as he was a singer. He stepped out from back of his store counter and hung out his sign as a Real Estate Dealer. Land Leases. Royalties. Deeds and Titles. He was a Clerk of the County Court for several years and our house was full of the smells of big leather law books, and the poems of pomp and high dignity that he memorized and performed over for us with the same wild pioneer outdoor chant as he sang his Negro and Indian square-dances and Blueses. He was a guitar and a banjo picker with a Cowboy Band or two, then hung up his deviled strings for domestic reasons.

At the new seven room house that Lee and Mary Tanner built on their farm, everything was nice, new and pretty. My mama was given a piano, her other sisters and brothers had one of the first phonographs in that county. The first notes of so-called civilized music echoed in the holler trees along Buckeye Creek and in the leaves of the sumac and the green June corn from out the screen door of the Tanner house. The Negroes made up songs and sung around the new Tanner place every day of its building up. Indians walked the backtrails and rooty rut roads, sang, cursed, chanted blessings and poison words out at the white man. This and the shirt staining fist fights that broke out around the house parties and dances, the foamy ponied outlaws, and the screaks of greasy wheeled buggies and wagons, newly-oiled trigger springs, the first oil scouting crowds that had commenced to drift out from back East, South, West and up North, their hurts, greeds, fears, this was the big song I heard all around me.

THE SOFT COAL mines, the lead and zinc mines around Henryetta, were only seventeen miles from my home town, Okemah, and I heard their songs. We drove the seven miles from Grandma's farm into town to do our trading and I stood down on the buggy floorboards and heard both papa's voice and mama's sing apart and together on hymns, spiritual songs, songs about how to save your lost and homeless soul and self. The color of the songs was the Red Man, Black Man, and the White folks.

OKEMAH 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 and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns. Here came the Lawyer Man, Doctor Man, Merchant Man, Royalty Man, Lease Man, Tong Bucker Man, Pipe Liner Man, Greasy Gloves Man, Big Wrench Han, the Cowboy and the Cowman, the Spirit and the Hoodoo Man, the ladies for all of these, the girls, and the Mistresses for the Pool Stick and Domino Sharker, the Red Light Pimper and Sidewalk Barker. I sold newspapers, sang all of the songs I picked up I learned to jig dance along the sidewalks to things called portable phonographs and sung for my first cancered pennies the "Dream of the Miner's Child," "Sinking of the Titanic," "Drunkard'a Dream," "Sailor's Plea," "Soldier's Sweetheart," "It Was Sad When that Great Ship Went Down," "Hindenburgh Disaster," "Marie Fagin," "Barbara Allen." My dad met the new comer, talked, traded, and built us a new six room house. But the speed and hurry, all of this pound and churn, roar and spin, this staggering yell and nervous scream of our little farn town turning into an Oil and Money Rush, it was too much of a load on my Mother's quieter nerves. She commenced to sing the sadder songa in a loster voice, to gaze out our window and to follow her songs out and up and over and away from it all, away over yonder in the minor keys.

Then our new built six room house burned down. We lived in several other houses and I heard all of the hurt songs over in a wilder way. These were the plainest days that I remember and the songs were made deepest in me along in these seasons. This was the time that our singing got the saddest. Mama asked papa to pull out of the land trading game.

I can hear him now as he sung in his Indian and Negro half chant as he rode down our road and into our barbed wire gate. I heard him call his horses and it sounded like a song to me. When he would call the purebred pigs, sows, shoats and boars, his voice was as much of a song in the air as ever was. And when the mare was led into the lot gate the neigh and nicker of the stud was a song as soft as a mating pigeon. I heard the work hands make songs about their work as they kept care of the prize animals, and I heard the song that is in a man's voice when he builds up all of these things by close trading, then loses them by some mistake, some crazy something in a ticker tape machine. My dad told me that he was the only man in the world that lost a farm a day for thirty days. The loss of these things hurt mama because she know they had hurt papa.