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Who is Woody Guthrie?

Folksinger and songwriter Woody Guthrie played harmonica.
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  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2014
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Woody Guthrie was a folksinger and songwriter from the United States whose full given name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Born in Okemah, Oklahoma on 14 July 1912, the year that Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, Woody Guthrie experienced a series of tragedies in his youth. These included the death of his sister, the involuntary commitment of his mother, who had Huntington’s disease, and the injury of his father in a fire. With the family split up, Woody Guthrie left home prior to finishing high school and began what would primarily be a life on the road.

Woody Guthrie learned to play harmonica and guitar, and began writing songs as a young adult. Though he periodically wrote articles and hosted radio shows — both with others and solo — and served in the Merchant Marine and the US Army, music was the continuous thread in his career. As he moved around the country — marrying three times and fathering eight children — he wrote some of the nation’s best loved folk songs and children’s songs.

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While his most famous song is “This Land Is Your Land,” he also wrote “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Hard, Ain’t It Hard,” and “Pretty Boy Floyd.” His children’s songs include “Why, Oh Why,” “Pretty and Shiny-O,” “Put Your Finger in the Air,” “Car Song or Riding in my Car,” “Jig Along Home,” and “All Work Together,” many of which are not recognized as the work of Woody Guthrie, but assumed to be old folk songs.

After 15 years in and out of the hospital, Woody Guthrie died of Huntington’s disease on 3 October 1967 in Queens, New York. His influence lives on in the music of his son Arlo Guthrie and in the recordings of his songs made by himself and other singers such as Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Bruce Springsteen, and many others.

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