Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912, the year his namesake Woodrow Wilson was elected President. At age 19 he left home for Texas, where he met and married his first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children. He left Texas (and his family) with the Dust Bowl, following the Okies to California. The poverty he saw on these early trips affected him greatly, and many of his songs are concerned with the inequities faced by America's working men and women. A lifelong socialist and trade unionist, he also contributed a regular article, Woody Sez, to the Daily Worker.
In 1935 or 1937 he achieved fame in California as a radio performer of both traditional folk music and his protest songs.
In 1939 or 1940, Guthrie moved to New York City and was embraced by its leftist and folk music community. He also made perhaps his first real recordings: several hours of conversation and songs, recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, as well as an album Dust Bowl Ballads, for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey. He began writing his autobiography, Bound For Glory, which was completed and published in 1943.
In 1940, Guthrie wrote his most famous song, This Land is Your Land, which was inspired in part by his experiences during a cross-country trip, and in part by his distaste for the Irving Berlin anthem God Bless America, which he considered unrealistic and complacent (he was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio). In the original version of This Land is Your Land Guthrie protested class inequality with the verse,
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple; By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me. and protested the institution of private ownership of land with the verse,
As I went walking, I saw a sign there; And on the sign there, It said, 'NO TRESPASSING.' But on the other side, It didn't say nothing. That side was made for you and me. In another version, the sign reads "Private Property." These verses were left out of subsequent recordings (even by Guthrie himself), rendering what was a protest song more patriotic.
In May 1941, he was commissioned by the Department of the Interior and its Bonnneville Power Authority to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of the federal dams; the best known of these are Roll on, Columbia and Grand Coulee Dam. Around the same time, he met Pete Seeger and joined the legendary Almanac Singers, with whom he toured the country and moved into the cooperative Almanac House in Greenwich Village.
Guthrie originally wrote and sang anti-war songs with the Almanac Singers, but eventually he and they, along with the Communist milieu with which they were associated, joined the anti-fascist cause -- Guthrie famously wrote the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. He joined the Merchant Marine, where he served with fellow folk singer Cisco Houston, and then the Army.
In 1944, Woody met Moses "Moe" Asch of Folkways Records, for whom he first recorded This Land is Your Land along with hundreds of others over the next few years.
He began dating then-married Marjorie Mazza in 1942; he married her in 1945 while on furlough from the Army. They moved into a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, and together had four children, including Cathy, who died at age four in a house fire, sending him into serious depression, and Arlo Guthrie, who became a famous singer-songwriter in his own right. It was during this period that he wrote and recorded Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, a collection of children's music.
By the late 1940s, Guthrie's health was worsening and his behavior becoming extremely erratic. He left his family, traveling with Ramblin' Jack Elliott to California, where he married for a third time and had another child, before eventually returning to New York. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), before he was finally discovered to be suffering from the degenerative nervous disorder Huntington's chorea, which had killed his mother. He was hospitalized until his death on October 3, 1967. By that time his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to him part through Bob Dylan, who visited Guthrie in the last years of his life and described him as "my last hero."
In 1998, Woody's daughter Nora approached the British singer Billy Bragg about recording lyrics her father had composed in the later years of his life. After researching the lyrics at the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York City, Bragg worked with the band Wilco to record 40 tracks, a number of which were released on the album Mermaid Avenue, followed by Mermaid Avenue II.