Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912 –1967) was one of the most significant figures in American folk music, who inspired several generations both politically and musically
Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, he heard church hymns, outlaw ballads, blues, fiddle tunes and popular music.
As a boy, he had already proved himself a gifted street entertainer — dancing, playing guitar and harmonica, making up songs. He then travelled a lot, partly to escape family troubles and his disintegrating marriage, and what he saw and experienced as he crossed the country contributed to his emergence as a social commentator.
“This Land Is Your Land” (even if it was released over 10 years later) was originally written in 1940, when he first arrived in New York City from Oklahoma, where the singer, known as “the Oklahoma cowboy”, was welcomed by its folk music community.
He started writing this song because he was irritated by Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which seemed to be endlessly playing in jukeboxes and on the radio, and whose lyrics, he thought, were unrealistic and complacent. The original title of this parody was “God Blessed America (for Me)”, but it was replaced by “This Land Is Your Land.”
He got the melody from a Carter Family tune called “When the World’s on Fire.“. He used to borrow tunes claiming: ‘Well, if they already know the tune, they’re halfway to knowing the song.’
The original satire evolved into a protest anthem, but it is often misinterpreted as a patriotic song. The lyrics express Guthrie’s belief that the working class should have the same rights as the rich.
Later in his life, Guthrie lost his ability to play guitar and sing, owing to Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurological disorder inherited from his mother, but he continued to inspire a younger generation of performers, among whom are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen
As this disease advances, physical abilities gradually worsen until coordinated movement becomes difficult and the person is unable to talk; mental abilities generally decline into dementia as well.
Guthrie’s illness was essentially untreated, because of a lack of knowledge about it, but, owing to his professional renown, his death from this disease helped raise awareness of it.