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100 Years After Birth, American Folk Singer Woody Guthrie Still Striking a Chord

Legendary American folk singer Woody Guthrie
Legendary American folk singer Woody Guthrie
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 into a prosperous family in the midwestern U.S. state of Oklahoma.

But by the time he was 17, Guthrie -- or Woody, as he had come to be known -- had lost his mother, a sister, and the family home, all under tragic circumstances.

Destitute, he embarked on a hardscrabble life, migrating to Texas and California in search of work as the Great Depression and the devastating 1930s drought known as the Dust Bowl left hundreds of thousands of Americans hungry and poor.

Through it all Guthrie, a musician, was chronicling his experiences in songs like the 1938 "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore," which describes life as an itinerant worker roaming from "town to town:"

Now, 100 years after his birth, Guthrie is considered to be one of the United States' most important and prolific folk singers.

He is believed to have written as many as 3,000 songs before his death in 1967 of Huntington's disease at the age of 55.

Songs From An Honest Place

According to his granddaughter, Anna Canoni, Guthrie appealed to generations of ordinary Americans because his own life had been marked by many of the same struggles they shared.

"He migrated with thousands and thousands of people from Oklahoma to California," she says. "He wasn't just reading about it. He experienced it. He was in the migrant camps in California. He experienced people starving. So I think that he wrote songs from a very honest place, a place of genuine experience."

Guthrie's travels and his experiences among the working class left him with both a respect for the American countryside and a passionate opposition to what he saw as the destructive nature of capitalism and private property.

In 1940 he wrote "This Land Is Your Land," a song that has come to be known as one of the United States' most famous folk songs.

The song was written in response to the patriotic ballad "God Bless America," which Guthrie deeply disliked for what he considered its nationalist overtones.

"This Land Is Your Land" has since come to be seen as an unofficial national anthem, with lyrics celebrating the beauty of the American landscape and the independence of its people.

'This Machine Kills Fascists'

But Guthrie's scope wasn't limited to the United States.

The songwriter, who wrote a regular column in a U.S. Communist Party newspaper, was a keen defender of the international labor movement.

And with the start of World War II, he dedicated many songs to the fight against Nazi Germany.

His guitar emblazoned with the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists," Guthrie authored a number of songs decrying Hitler and lionizing his Soviet opponents.

One such song, "Miss Pavlichenko," honored the legendary Ukrainian female sniper Lyudmyla Pavlichenko with the phrase, "300 Nazis fell by your gun."

Guthrie, a confirmed iconoclast, was never a formal member of the Communist Party.

But his sympathy towards communist ideals and his fascination with the Soviet Union made him a controversial figure in the United States during the Cold War and beyond.

Even today, some Americans see Guthrie as an angry radical who sought to bring down the government.

But his defenders say Guthrie, in fact, was a joyful, good-natured optimist who believed that ordinary people deserved a role in political decision-making.

Film director Peter Frumkin, who profiled Guthrie in the 2006 documentary "Ain't Got No Home," maintains that the singer-songwriter remains widely revered in the United States, especially as the current faltering economy is fueling a new protest climate:

"I think Woody Guthrie's legacy is becoming more important to the country now, because some of the issues that he was writing about are reappearing," he says.

"In the 1930s and 1940s, when he was writing, working people in the country were having a really, really tough time, and once again, the middle class is having a really, really tough time."

Woody Guthrie's son Arlo and daughter Nora have forged successful folk careers of their own.

And Guthrie himself remains a frequent inspiration for some of the best-known performing artists today, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Billy Bragg, who share his belief in the power of music to change things for the better.

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