Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., 100 years ago. So he wasn't from around here. Even so, there are good reasons for Californians to claim Woody as one of our own.
Guthrie lived in California during several periods of his life, and the experience shaped both his life and music. The Golden State is prominent in songs such as "This Land Is Your Land" and "Do Re Mi" as well as lesser-known works, such as "California Stars" and "Old L.A."
Like so many others, Guthrie made his way to California during the Dust Bowl. He watched politicians and their thugs trying to turn back these desperate masses, which prompted him to sing: "California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't got the do re mi."
Guthrie first became famous on a radio show with partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman, performing traditional folk and songs identified as "hillbilly" music. He witnessed the deadly deluge in Southern California in 1934, which inspired his song "Los Angeles New Year's Flood."
Guthrie moved to New York in the 1940s, and the Interior Department later hired him to write songs about dams under construction on the Columbia River. Sadly, when he returned to California after World War II, he was suffering from symptoms of Huntington's disease, which he had inherited from his mother.
I wasn't familiar with Guthrie's music while growing up. Instead, I was listening to all the artists he inspired Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and, much later, rockers like Bruce Springsteen.
As fans of his music gather today to honor him, they should be careful not to idolize Guthrie. He was hardly a saint. He had two failed marriages and wasn't always there for his children. Combined with Huntington's disease, his alcoholism probably cut short his life.
But decades after he was in his prime, Guthrie's music remains powerful and relevant as the nation struggles through another period of economic blight. During World War II, Guthrie played a guitar that was marked with a slogan, "This machine kills Fascists." Guthrie should be remembered as a warrior who understood that words and ideas could be more powerful than bullets.
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Read more articles by Stuart Leavenworth
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