People who write and share songs have an opportunity many of us only wish we had: a chance to share ideas with our communities and our society. Woody Guthrie was a songwriter, and he used his voice not only to entertain listeners, but also to share messages about many things he thought were important. Woody’s life was a roller coaster of tragedy and fun, difficult and slightly better times. Through his experiences he learned, saw, and thought many things about his country. Woody had ideas to share, and audience to share with, and a genuine, unique voice that helped him to stand out.
Woody wrote from his own life, and so it is important to understand the rough times he endured that helped to create such a special man. The struggles of life that Woody knew so well began for him in childhood. Before Woody was born, his parents Charlie and Nora Guthrie had seen a few years of success. In the small farm town of Okemah, Oklahoma, Charlie gave up a successful political career for an even more prosperous career dealing property. By 1912, when Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born, their fortune had begun to turn around. As the small town became an oil boom town, Charlie’s business could not stand up against corporate competition, and he lost all of his properties (Jackson). Furthermore, the family had recently lost their home in a fire that may have been started by Woody’s mother, Nora. This event seems like a premonition for two recurrent hardships of Woody’s life--fire disasters and the erratic behavior of his mother (Cray, 3-17).
Woody’s mother had a very significant impact on his lifestyle. Although his father sang and played a little on the fiddle, it was his mother’s singing and piano playing that kindled Woody’s appreciation for music. When times were rough for the family, the folk songs his mother played would be increasingly melancholy (Cray, 13). Later, when Woody began to play his own music, many of these songs remained in his mind. His mother’s increasingly unpredictable mood and behavior also created hardships for the family. She would alternate between loving tenderness and violent, unwarranted outrage towards her family. On one occasion Woody’s older sister came home to find their baby brother crying in their unlit oven (Partridge, 17). When Woody was not yet seven, his beloved fourteen year old sister Clara burned to death when her dress caught on fire. Although the family claimed that the fire was an accident, it is likely that Woody’s mother started the fire during one of her violent rages (Cray, 20).
It was during this period that Woody became somewhat of a wanderer. He stayed away from the house and his mother’s frightening behavior, and instead started hanging around all over town. In 1927, Woody’s family was permanently dislodged after his father woke up on fire, probably started by his mother. His father lived, but was badly crippled (Partridge, 27). His father left Okemah to be cared for by a sister in Pampa, Texas. Woody’s mother was sent to an insane asylum, where it was discovered that her erratic and disastrous behavior had been due to a degenerative, hereditary disorder: Huntington’s chorea. Woody remained in Okemah; on his own at just fifteen years old (Cray, 30-36).
While the events of Woody’s childhood laid the foundation for his musical personality and roaming lifestyle, the harsh conditions of the time period throughout which he grew up helped create many of his views and ideas. By fifteen years old, Woody had already seen the Okemah oil boom go bust. He and many of the townsfolk around him were struggling to find jobs. For awhile Woody was lucky enough to be taken in by a friend’s struggling family, but eventually he had to go stay with relatives in Pampa (Jackson). Conditions were not any better in Pampa; the Depression had left many people jobless, hungry and desperate. Seventeen-year-old Woody and his father were both struggling to support themselves. Woody found irregular employment when...
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