Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912, the year his namesake was elected President. At a young age he left home to adopt an itinerant lifestyle, travelling across the United States as the Jazz Age turned into the Great Depression. 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 he achieved fame in California as a radio performer of both traditional folk music and his protest songs. His interest in the working class was also shown in the specially commissioned songs he wrote at this time for the Bonneville Power Authority in Washington State, the best known of which are Grand Coulee Dam and "Roll On Columbia," and his "Ballad of Tom Joad" based on John Ford's film of The Grapes of Wrath.
With the outbreak of World War II Guthrie, a devout anti-fascist—he often played with the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists" written on his guitar—joined the Merchant Marine, where he served with fellow folk singer Cisco Houston. He also wrote the first volume of his autobiography "Bound for Glory".
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 1950s Guthrie was blacklisted, and quipped, "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life." By that time, in any event, his output had fallen off, and he was diagnosed as suffering from the degenerative nervous disorder Huntington's chorea, and hospitalised, where he remained until his death on October 3, 1967. By that time his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to him through Bob Dylan, who described Guthrie as "my last hero".
His son Arlo Guthrie has achieved some success as a singer as well.
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. (The Mermaid Avenue title is a reference to the Guthrie's home on Coney Island.)