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1967

Writer, singer and folk icon Woody Guthrie dies

On October 3, 1967, Woody Guthrie, godfather of the 1950s folk revival movement, dies.

In 1963, Bob Dylan was asked by the authors of a forthcoming book on Woody Guthrie to contribute a 25-word comment summarizing his thoughts on the man who had probably been his greatest formative influence. Dylan responded instead with a 194-line poem called “Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” which took as its theme the eternal human search for hope. “And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’?” Dylan asks in the poem, before proceeding to a kind of answer:

You can either go to the church of your choice

Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital

You’ll find God in the church of your choice

You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, whom Dylan would later call “the true voice of the American spirit,” was a native of Okemah, Oklahoma, who was born in 1912 and thus entered adulthood just as America entered the Great Depression. Already an accomplished, self-taught musician, Woody Guthrie began writing music in earnest following his experiences traveling west to California with other Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s. His first public exposure came during the latter part of that decade as a regular on radio station KFVD Los Angeles, but his most important work took place following a move to New York City in 1939.

In his first two years in New York, Guthrie made a series of landmark recordings for Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress as well as the album Dust Bowl Ballads, which served as the first introduction for many to a form that Guthrie helped pioneer: protest folk. Most famously in “This Land Is Your Land”—written in 1940 and first recorded in 1944—Guthrie fused long-established American musical traditions with a populist, left-wing political sensibility to create an entirely new template for contemporary folk. In so doing, of course, he laid the groundwork not only for the great folk revival of the 1950s and 60s, but also for such iconoclastic heirs to that movement as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

In his late 30s, Woody Guthrie began to fall ill, displaying the ambiguous physical and psychological symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed as Huntington’s chorea, a genetic disorder that had probably killed his mother in 1930. In the 1950s, treatment for Huntington’s generally meant institutionalization in a psychiatric hospital, and Woody Guthrie spent his final 12 years in such facilities. In fact, it was in New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital that a young Bob Dylan first encountered the man he’d traveled all the way from Minnesota to see.

Woody Guthrie was moved to Brooklyn State Hospital in 1961 and again in 1966 to Creedmore Psychiatric Center in the borough of Queens. He died at Creedmore on this day in 1967, at the age of 55.

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