Woody Guthrie Born In Oklahoma

by Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State

Episode #11 – Woody Guthrie’s Birthday / produced by Jack Anderson

On July 14, 1912, Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. His musical career and persona are twinned with his Okie roots and the way he embodied the experiences of the 1930s Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma to California. It was there in California that Guthrie’s star first shown, as a radio performer in Los Angeles. Guthrie didn’t stay there, though, and his national fame—the Guthrie of “This Land Is Your Land”—only came about after his 1940 move to the folk music circles of New York City.

So what makes Woody’s birthday an event in Texas Music History? The concept album Dust Bowl Ballads was his Depression-era masterpiece, the sonic equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath and a primary document of the era. If it was an Okie album, it was also a Texas one, because that’s where Guthrie himself experienced the Dust Bowl, in the Panhandle town of Pampa where he lived and played in his first bands just as the great dust storms descended on the town and wiped out livelihoods. It was the Texas Panhandle, then, that directly inspired such songs as “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”

Guthrie is a towering figure in American music, a key influence on Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and generations of socially engaged artists. You can go to Oklahoma to learn more, at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center, near the historic Cain’s Ballroom and the new Bob Dylan Center. But Texas remembers Guthrie, too.  Pampa has its own Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center, housed in the drugstore where Woody worked as a soda jerk in the 1930s, contemplating the problems in the wide and dusty world outside.

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