How Woody Guthrie’s Mother Shaped His Music of the Downtrodden
Gustavus Stadler on Nora Belle Guthrie's Battle
with Huntington's Disease
In the 1970s and ’80s, young people may well have encountered Woody Guthrie most commonly in the form of an iconic poster, often frameless and tacked to the wall of a dorm room or activist organization’s office. This poster had a little image of Guthrie in one corner, but mostly it was crammed with text, in a typeface designed less for clarity than to convey urgency and authenticity. Those who made the effort read a screed that began:
I hate a song that makes you think you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. . . . Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.
These words resonate with defiant, unadulterated anger, as he calls for artistic honesty to cut through the muck of American popular song—the ethnic and racial stereotyping, the glorification of consumption and wealth. But the poster omitted an earlier passage from the original text, a monologue Guthrie had presented during a New York radio broadcast in 1944, in which he stated: “I don’t sing any songs that are not real. I don’t sing any silly or jerky songs, nor any songs that make fun of your color, your race, the color of your eyes or the shape of your stomach or the shape of your nose.”
In their editorial process, the poster makers suppressed the extent of Guthrie’s focus on stigmatized physical features like skin color, eye color, stomach and nose shape, girth, attractiveness, perhaps thinking they added little of substance to our understanding of the singer’s sweeping sympathy for the downtrodden. How important could it be, they may have asked themselves, to portray him as an early advocate against, say, fat shaming?
But Guthrie’s attention to these bodily features, and to people’s marginalization on the basis of them, drove his career as an artist with a guitar, a pen, or a paintbrush. He came to understand the shaming and stigmatization of certain bodies as working to isolate people, to prevent them from assembling as a collective—a proven way for those lacking financial resources to empower themselves—to demand a better life.
The origins of this viewpoint lay in Guthrie’s earlier life, in the tragedies that beset his family, all revolving around his mother’s mysterious condition, her undiagnosed Huntington’s disease.In the early 1920s, as Nora Belle Guthrie’s bizarre spells worsened, no one in the family or beyond knew to call what was happening anything other than insanity.
Huntington’s disease has three major symptoms: dyskinesia, or involuntary movements; dementia; and “disorders of mood and perception, particularly depression,” though angry outbursts are also a noted symptom. Its symptoms typically begin showing themselves in early middle age, usually between the ages of 30 and 40, but they often appear as minor shifts in mood and disposition, making their initial manifestations difficult to discern. Yet, there are many variations among cases. Nora Belle Guthrie may have been a bit younger than 30 when her family and neighbors began to notice behaviors they deemed strange.
Until the second half of the 20th century, the condition was widely known as Huntington’s chorea, the Greek word for dance or chorus, that is, a group of dancers. It is hereditary, a gene mutation passed down through generations, and as of the early 21st century, incurable. A child with one parent suffering from the disease has a 50–50 chance of developing it as an adult.
Although the symptoms appear gradually, they eventually become dramatically visible—particularly as involuntary, jerky movements. This dyskinesia becomes far more drastic than the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease—hence, the association with dance, a spectacle of the body. Consequently, people suffering from the illness have long been told their bodies were aberrant, and faced ostracism and discrimination.
Before Dr. George Huntington named it as a pathology in 1872, those stricken with the disease were frequently assumed insane, their outlandish physical symptoms considered a manifestation of a deranged mind. In the early 20th century, Alice Wexler’s research shows, scientists and physicians saw the condition through the lens of eugenic theory, the racial pseudo-science built on the principle that certain categories of people should be encouraged to reproduce while others should be discouraged.
Dr. Charles B. Davenport, a leading American eugenicist, “called for immigration restrictions, surveillance of families, and compulsory sterilization of people with Huntington’s.” In 1934, a British neurologist claimed that the mark of the illness spread beyond those carrying it, affecting their intimates as well; according to Wexler, “all members of families affected by Huntington’s disease were [in the neurologist’s words] ‘liable to bear the marks of a grossly psychopathic taint, and the story of feeblemindedness, insanity, suicide, criminality, alcoholism, and drug addiction becomes enfolded over and over again.’”
In other words, the widely respected theory of eugenics subjected them to the same authority-imprinted stigmas, in many of the same terms, as it did people of African origin, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and even, as we will see, some poor white Americans.
In the early 1920s, as Nora Belle Guthrie’s bizarre spells worsened, no one in the family or beyond knew to call what was happening anything other than insanity. The people of Okemah bandied about words like “batty” and “nutty.” Both in the family and in town, there was some sense that madness had haunted the paternal side of her ancestry, the Shermans. But intimacy isn’t always about sharing; it can also be about agreements to keep secrets. We don’t know how much Nora Belle knew about this murky history, or whether she discussed it with her husband or children.
In any case, the town noticed Nora Belle’s strange movements and sudden outbursts. They heard rumors of strange things happening at home, and suspected they weren’t being told everything about the house fire or the incident in which Woody’s older sister Clara sustained fatal burns. In the town’s public spaces, they greeted Nora with stares and suspicious glances.
Clara’s death was a turning point. After that, Guthrie wrote in an autobiographical sketch in 1946, “my mother’s nerves gave way like an overloaded bridge.” More tenderly and poetically, he wrote of her, “She sang in a voice that not everybody understood.”
Many afternoons, Woody’s mother would grab him and retreat into the obscurity of the Crystal Theatre on Okemah’s Broadway, doing her best to make her body disappear, at least as a spectacle for others. Mother and son would sit in the dark for hours watching matinees. If they were lucky, the program would include a film starring their favorite, Charlie Chaplin, a masterful physical performer who turned bodily struggles into comedy, making them a source of joy and release for his audience. So deep an impression did these movies make on little Woody that in later years, many people who knew him would call his bodily bearing Chaplin-esque.
The town’s treatment of his mother, and these afternoons spent in hiding, introduced Woody Guthrie to shame as a force of social organization and disentitlement. At the theater, in the streets of Okemah, and at home, his primary relationship with an ill, disabled woman laid the foundation for his empathy and identification with the dispossessed, people robbed of their full personhood by stigma. In this sense, there is no pre- or post-Huntington’s Woody Guthrie; he had lived with the disease since early childhood.
After Nora Belle was committed to the state asylum in 1927, Charley Guthrie moved to north Texas, where relatives helped him recover from the severe burns sustained, apparently, at the hands of his wife. In fact, his fortunes in Okemah had fallen dramatically from his earlier days as a real estate speculator, political powerbroker, and anti-socialist propagandist. Oil money now ran the town, and he was an insider turned outsider.
But it was the aftereffects of the fiery calamity at home that sent him over the edge. He bolted across the southern state border, leaving his two oldest surviving children, Woody and older brother Roy, living in Okemah in poverty. It was Woody’s first experience of rootlessness. Sometimes the two teens would stay with family friends, other times they would squat in one of the town’s abandoned houses.
In the summer of 1929, just before the stock market crash undermined the global economy, Woody Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas, where his father had resettled. It was here that Guthrie began to see a future as a musician. He’d learned harmonica from an African American man named George (presumably Guthrie never thought to ask his surname) in Okemah—though George’s skin color dictated that he had to leave the town by dusk, given Okemah’s “sundown policy.”
Then he learned guitar and got his first paying gigs, playing “hillbilly music,” essentially the forerunner of country music, at barn dances in a duo with his uncle Jeff, a fiddler. In spare moments alone, he played the old, traditional songs his mother used to sing when he was a toddler. On stage, he had an uncommon gift for witty stage banter. He drew inspiration from his fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers, a humorist and political satirist of indigenous heritage. As more and more people lost jobs, homes, and savings, dry wit was an increasingly necessary form of sustenance.Witnessing vulnerability drew Woody in a political direction very different from his father’s.
Intellectually, Guthrie was a determined, ravenous autodidact. He dropped out of high school, finding the hours he spent reading in the Pampa public library more intellectually stimulating. According to biographer Ed Cray, he “systematically worked his way through the shelves, concentrating on psychology, Western religions, and Eastern philosophies.”
He started to build his own nuclear family in 1933, when he married Mary Jennings, the younger sister of his best friend in Pampa. She came from a stable, respected family; the town considered her a catch. He was 21, she 16. Over the next seven years, they would have three children together: Gwen, Sue, and Will Rogers (Bill), born in 1935, 1937, and 1938, respectively. But over this time, as he was honing a political art of empathy, he would hypocritically neglect his loved ones, spending many days and nights away from them pursuing his own ambitions, or dragging them around the country as reluctant participants in his quest.
On Palm Sunday of 1935, Woody and Mary were together at home in Texas when they witnessed an environmental event that seemed to embody all the greed and depredation that had brought on the Great Depression. A massive dust storm engulfed Pampa, piercing the walls of their home and dimming the electrically lighted interior. Outside, people and animals suffocated, their lungs filling with the dry particles. The calamity inspired his first serious stab at songwriting: a composition called “Dusty Old Dust.”
Witnessing vulnerability drew him in a political direction very different from his father’s. Woody was no stranger to the Left; in Oklahoma, leftists were part of the ambient political environment. His father’s fierce anti-socialist diatribes in the Okemah newspaper were in part a response to a very present, very vibrant radical left in Oklahoma. In 1912, the year of Woody Guthrie’s birth, the state’s electorate gave Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president, a whopping 16 percent of its vote.
Little Okemah even boasted its own socialist newspaper, the Sledge Hammer. As scholar Will Kaufman puts it, “The elder Guthrie could take little pleasure in the knowledge that it was his state—not New York—that was the epicenter of political radicalism in America.”
Excerpted from Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life by Gustavus Stadler (Beacon Press, 2020). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.