Woody Guthrie Left a Special Stamp on L.A.


This land is your land

This land is my land

From California

To the New York island.

From the redwood forest

To the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.


Woody Guthrie was the father of American folk music. And, while the roots of his America were buried deep in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, many of his most famous songs were products of Los Angeles’ skid row bars and the cotton fields of bare-knuckle Bakersfield.

Hailed as “the Walt Whitman of song,” Guthrie’s legend was born with the protest songs he wrote to give voice to exploited workers and the disenfranchised poor who fled the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Like novelist John Steinbeck, Guthrie made enduring art out of the farm belt migrants’ desperate westward trek.

And, like Steinbeck, Guthrie--a troubled man in troubled times--was a grass-roots activist for those who were “busted, disgusted and couldn’t be trusted.”


His career as a radical singer-songwriter and literary figure spanned less than two decades, but between 1936 and 1952, he produced 1,000 songs. At age 37, he began losing his ability to create, and doctors finally diagnosed his mind-destroying hereditary disease as Huntington’s chorea.

He was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, Okla., in 1912, and named for the man the Democrats nominated for president that year.

His father, Charlie, made a comfortable living from real estate, owning as many as 30 farms at one point. But he suffered financial setbacks and was broke by 1923. His sister, Clara, died when a coal oil stove exploded, and his mother was then carried off to an asylum--stricken, though no one at the time knew it, with the family disease that ultimately would kill Woody. His father later committed suicide.

In 1929, the 17-year-old Woody fled his disintegrating family and hometown for what became a lifetime of hard-scrabble wandering. After four years of hitchhiking and hopping freights, he landed in Texas, where he married Mary Jennings. Broke with a wife and two daughters, he went back on the bum, hitting the road with his guitar slung on his back.

In 1937, he arrived in Los Angeles and soon was writing about how the city deputized more than 100 of its police officers to patrol counties along the state’s eastern border to keep out the “bums, crooks, won’t-works and indigents” set on the move by the Dust Bowl.

Moving into one room in a broken-down motel in Glendale with his family, Guthrie soon began following the crops around the area and hanging out at a skid row bar at 5th and Main streets, where he wrote songs about L.A.’s traffic and the Lincoln Heights jail.


Drop whatever you are doing

Stop your work and worry too

Sit right down and take it easy

Here comes Woody and Lefty Lou.

Friends got Guthrie his first serious performing job on an L.A. radio station, KFVD. Making his mark in politics, Guthrie and Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman wrote and sang “hillbilly” songs and aimed barbs at bankers who robbed people of their homes:

Some rob you with a six-gun,

Some with a fountain pen.

Soon, Guthrie also was regularly decrying the low wages and deplorable living conditions among migrant fieldworkers.

In fact, he would later write what became the classic protest ballad “Deportees,” about the crash of a plane deporting illegal immigrants back to Mexico, in 1947.

To feed his family, Guthrie also drew sketches and wrote a daily column, “Woody Sez,” that frequently appeared on the front page of People’s World, a San Francisco newspaper with an L.A. office on 6th Street.

A restless soul, he crisscrossed the country throughout the period, riding the rails with buddies Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston and cajoling record companies into paying attention to folk music at a time when Frank Sinatra ruled.

Around the time his wife gave birth to their third child, Guthrie was attending fancy Hollywood parties and hooked up with actor Will Geer. Deeply moved by the plight of the Dust Bowl refugees, Guthrie and Geer traveled to migrant camps, holding labor rallies.


In 1940, unable to cope with his wanderlust, Guthrie’s wife left him, returning to Texas with their children. (Their son Bill would later die in an auto accident, and the two girls would die from the same disease that would eventually claim their father.)

Joining Geer in New York, Guthrie settled down again, more or less, in 1942, when he married a 29-year-old dancer named Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, who became his organizer, mother of four more of his children and the family breadwinner.

He wrote smiling, child-pleasing songs, inspired by his daughter Cathy. But at age 4, Cathy died in a fire--a haunting echo of one of his worst childhood tragedies. Guthrie began drinking.

He and Marjorie had three other children--Arlo, Nora and Joady--and Guthrie continued writing songs such as “Take You Ridin’ in My Car-Car,” “Mail Myself to You,” “Jig Along Home” and “Dry Bed”--the latter about the triumph 4-year-olds feel when they wake up in one.

But Guthrie’s health deteriorated and he became increasingly unkempt and took to wandering the city. Family life was tense, and he attacked Marjorie with a pair of scissors. She soon left him.

In 1952, New York doctors finally diagnosed Guthrie, who they previously had thought was either mentally ill or an alcoholic, as suffering from Huntington’s chorea, a crippling and ultimately fatal nerve disorder.


Fleeing the dreaded reality, he hit the road again and headed back to L.A. Guthrie performed his last concert at Geer’s home that year.

Before Geer became Grandpa on the television series “The Waltons,” he had suffered because of his inclusion on Hollywood’s blacklist. During that period, he bought almost five wooded acres in Topanga Canyon, carved out an outdoor stage and founded an open-air haven for folk artists and social activists.

It was in that bucolic setting, under giant California sycamores, that Guthrie lived in a little wooden shack. It also was there that he met his third wife, Annekke Marshall. And it was there that he sang a final song on the stage his friend Will had carved out beside a creek:

I better quit my talking ‘cause I told you all I know

But please remember, pardner, wherever you may go,

The people are building a peaceful world, and when the job is done,

That’ll be the biggest thing that man has ever done.

It was only after Guthrie’s active years had ended that his artistic impact began to be truly felt.

Four years after his death in 1967, Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.) co-authored a congressional resolution calling for a national Woody Guthrie Day. But Guthrie’s hometown city fathers opposed it, saying he was not worthy of the honor. A donation of his books to the town library was also rebuffed, and before his family home was demolished, someone scrawled on the wall, “Damn Communist.”

But 22 years after Guthrie’s death, Okemah, a city of 3,500, finally paid its respects to an American hero and welcomed Guthrie’s son, Arlo, to sing at a benefit concert.


Although he touched many Americans at various levels, Guthrie left one special stamp on Los Angeles: “Woody’s Shack,” now a private residence at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.