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Woody Guthrie's Indelible Mark On American Culture

Woody Guthrie singing aboard a New York City subway train.
Eric Schaal
Life Pictures/Getty Images
Woody Guthrie singing aboard a New York City subway train.

The summer of 2012 marks the centennial of the birth of American folk icon Woody Guthrie, on July 14, 1912. A poet of the people, Guthrie wrote some of America's most important songs, including "This Land Is Your Land." He penned ballads that captured the heart of hard economic times and war.

While Guthrie left a lasting mark on music, culture and politics, he struggled with family poverty, tragedies and personal demons.

Jeff Place, head archivist of the Smithsonian Folklife Collection, and Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, joined NPR's Neal Conan on the National Mall to celebrate the Guthrie centennial. Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Elizabeth Mitchell joined them there to play some of Guthrie's most memorable songs.

Interview Highlights

On how Guthrie found his niche

Santelli: "He goes and travels through Southern California or Central California [to the Hoovervilles] and begins to realize that many of the people who had come to California in search of this California dream — which, in essence, was an opportunity for a new job, a new start, some human dignity that just wasn't happening back in Oklahoma with the repossession of their farms by banks or the elimination of their farms by the great Dust Bowl.

"And he realized that for many of those people, the California dream turned into the California nightmare. These were people who couldn't get jobs even though they were promised and were going hungry, and kids were going without food and shoes.

"And he decided to essentially become the spokesperson of his people out in California, and he begins to write songs that reflect their predicament and give them both a voice but also hope through the music he wrote."

On Guthrie's songwriting process

Place: "He had these incredible bursts of creative energy that couldn't hardly harness him once he got going, when he got inspired [by] what he saw out in those Hoovervilles, you know, the people, the way they were living, you know, and he happened to have a guy who had a radio show adjacent to his who was, you know, a socialist.

"And he started, like, learning from this guy, and really got ... empowered politically, and just this incredible creative mill that was Woody Guthrie all of a sudden just started cranking and cranking and kept going for about ten years. ...

"... He would get up in the morning and write all these songs. He'd write them on the back of, like, newspapers and Christmas wrapping paper ... He left a lot of them sort of laying around. He'd move on to wherever he was going. So I'm sure somebody's grandkid is going to find one in a shoebox in the attic one of these days."

On Guthrie's enduring significance to Americans

Santelli: "He thought nothing of hitchhiking into Texas. After he leaves Oklahoma, he moves to Pampa, Texas, and is always on the go. This is not the kind of person who was going to be in one place for any one particular period of time.

"But that's what made him great. I mean, he got to see elements of the country that most people back then didn't even have a clue existed. And the fact that he was so prolific as a writer, basically his writings, whether it be songs or journal entries or letters or whatever because he wrote so much every single day, it's a living testament, a living document to common, everyday workingman life in America during the Great Depression."

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