Woody Guthrie used his music to champion the poor and downtrodden and bring attention to political causes and social injustices. Growing up during the Great Depression, Guthrie lived a wandering lifestyle, travelling and living all over the country, producing music that connected with the everyday man who was down on his luck. Guthrie helped to popularize folk music, bringing the genre commercial success. In the late 1940s, he began to show signs of Huntington’s Disease, a condition later understood to have been inherited from his mother.
Born in Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) spent his adult life travelling around the United States, singing and writing music. He lived in Texas, California, Oregon, Florida, and New York, creating folk music that resonated with everyday folk during the hard times of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Guthrie left Texas looking for work in California, where he gained popularity by singing on the radio. He moved to New York City in 1940, where he became friends with other singers and activists, including Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. He was part of a group called The Almanac Singers, that, along with producing folk music, advocated for social causes such as unions and workers’ rights. Strongly anti-Fascist—he famously had a guitar that read “This machine kills fascists”—much of Guthrie’s music was used as a form of political protest and activism. Guthrie wrote almost 3,000 song lyrics, along with two novels, poems, and hundreds of letters, over the course of his career and helped to popularize folk music. He had a strong impact on later generations of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, who wrote a poem about Guthrie.
During World War II, Guthrie served in the Merchant Marines and the Army. After the war, he moved to Brooklyn were he rented an apartment in a development called Beach Haven. The complex had been developed with generous loans from the Federal Housing Authority to support housing for service members returning to New York. Controversy came to surround the developer of Beach Haven for his profiteering from public contracts. Guthrie had observed first-hand the racist and discriminatory policies that kept non-whites out of the buildings. He wrote harshly about “Old Man Trump,” as he referred to Fred Trump, his landlord. Eventually the Justice Department brought a federal lawsuit charging Fred Trump with violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In June of 1975, Fred and his son Donald, then the President of Trump Management Corporation, settled the suit with the government—but admitted no guilt.
In the late 1940s, Guthrie’s health began to deteriorate. Doctors at first were unsure of the cause of his illness, diagnosing him with everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia. In the early 1950s, he was admitted to Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, where he was finally diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, today known as Huntington’s Disease, an incurable inexorably progressive degenerative disease. Unable to control his muscles, Guthrie spent the last decade of his life in hospitals, passing away on October 3, 1967 in Queens. His family remained by his side until the end, and his second wife, Marjorie, went on to help found the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease. Guthrie’s fame helped bring recognition to the terrible disease that claimed his life.