Woody Guthrie and Birth of the American Folk Revival

The young American folk revivalists came along in 1960s and gave whole new political voice of dissent to the Civil Rights Movements and Free Speech movement through their protest songs which were derived heavily from folk music and ballads of various lands. Young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Belafonte, Donovan and many other popular singers belong to that golden era of American Folk Revival. But the seeds of this movement of protests songs were sown long before. Woody Guthrie alone inspired this whole new generation of singers to give voice to the poor and oppressed working class people.

Woody Guthrie never got any recognition in the form of awards in his life.  It was only posthumously his contribution to music was awarded. But more than the awards it was his legacy of singing folk songs, ballads and protest songs about working class poor which inspired whole new generation of songwriters and singers that lived on. These songs became an important political force for the anti-fascists movement and anti war movements all over the world during World War II and later during Civil Rights, Anti Apartheid and Freedom of Speech movements. Woody Guthrie’s songs like Deportee, This Land is My Land, Dust Bowl Refugees, Hard Travelling and many others are relevant even today and have immortalized his place in the history of music.

Woody Guthrie’s personal life was full of ups and downs. He was born in Oklahoma in 1912 and at very young age had to face many personal tragedies. He had to move away from Oklahoma which after seeing overnight oil boom went overnight bust in 1930s. Woody Guthrie had to hit the road with hundreds of refugees and migrants who came to be known as Dust Bowl Refugees during the great Depression and later droughts and famines of 1940s. It was during these journeys while surviving on odd jobs Woody started to write and sing songs about ordinary people, soldiers, war widows and children who showed great courage and resilience in the face of extreme odds. His musical style was essentially influenced by folk music.

Woody Guthrie got married thrice and his personal life too was a great enriching journey. But it was his geographical journeys that he was more addicted to. Even when he did get a good job at New York Radio station, he gave it up to travel again to explore new horizons. He wrote songs, composed music for documentaries, wrote books and indulged in art too. During World War II when he came to New York he was welcomed by Leftists and intellectuals and became popular voice of dissent for the political and anti war movements. He had written on his guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists”.

He saw popularity of Progressive Leftists movement wane over the years after World War II. Activists and artists with Left leanings were eventually blacklisted by Capitalists’ forces in America and they all had to seek refuge elsewhere and even hide. In early 1960s Woody Guthrie was struck by degenerative nerve disorder also known as Huttington’s disease. He had inherited it from his mother. He became erratic, moody and showed many psychotic symptoms and had to be hospitalized. But by then the seeds of dissent that he had sown in the minds of next generation had germinated. It was in the hospital that 19 year old Bob Dylan and young Joan Baez and many other singers came to sing songs for him. Woody Guthrie died on 3rd October 1967.

The next generation of singers had already picked up the baton. The great American Folk Revival had arrived to stay and influence many more generations. Even today Oklahoma celebrates Folk Music festival in July every year in his memory. There are other events too throughout the year all over the world celebrating songs of Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie’s most famous song, This Land is My Land was sung by Pete Seeger and his son Alo Guthrie after Barack Obama was elected as President of United States. It was a symbolic moment – the lyrical voice of dissent had lived on and had turned the tides.


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