July 14th marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie, American folk music legend! You probably know him best from his song “This Land Is Your Land.” He frequently fashioned the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. Having influenced songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy and John Mellencamp, Guthrie’s works with political, traditional, children’s, ballad, and improv music have made their mark on the musical world.
Born and raised in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s adolescent years were no walk in the park. His mother was admitted to an insane asylum when he was 14. From then on he often begged for meals and slept at the homes of family friends in order to get by while his father was battling debt. In fact, his father influenced him on three of his songs on the 1911 lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson.
He made it clear that his father was involved in the lynching as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At a young age, Guthrie excelled in music learning how to play the harmonica from a childhood friend and playing at numerous dances. However he did not excel in school, dropping out during his fourth year of high school. Eventually Guthrie traveled from Oklahoma to California with migrant workers, where he learned traditional folk and blues music.
Guthrie’s music is encompassed by guitar and vocals, including harmonies with other voices. His music is simply expressed with traditional folk sounding tunes that often are led by ballad-like lyrics. He makes it evident how strong a tool music can be in influencing others, pitching a tune inside one’s head that follows your own story’s words.
Much of his story-telling is influenced by actual events and people, such as his song “Ludlow Massacre” when the Colorado Guard lit fire on a 10-settlement of miners and their families during a strike in Ludlow, Colorado on April 20, 1914. Learning the history behind songs such as this make it quite easy to understand how musicians such as Bob Dylan can say that Guthrie served as a mentor. I highly suggest listening to some of Guthrie’s music today, and maybe even look back at your own roots to find what you can create out of the past.