On October 3rd of 1967, folk musician Woody Guthrie died of Huntington's Chorea, a progressive, incurable, genetically transmitted disorder that causes the brain to rot. The disease mostly attacks victims in their 30s and 40s. Woody Guthrie lived to the ripe old age of 55, but the last ten years of his life was spent in hospitals.
Although probably best known for the song This Land is Your Land, Woody Guthrie was a pioneer of folk and protest music who spearheaded the folk revival movement of the 1950s. The music of Woody Guthrie has influenced the music of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, and Bruce Springsteen, among at least a dozen others.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14th of 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was pretty much on his own by age fourteen, as his father was seldom around and his mother, after years of being institutionalized, died of Huntington's disease in 1930. After learning to play a harmonica, Woody realized he had an ear for music, and started playing around town for food or spare change. Sometimes he would perform at dances with his Uncle Jeff, a fiddle player.
Many of his songs are about his experiences in the “dust bowl” era during the Great Depression. He traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California in search of work, leaving his first wife and three children behind. One of these children would die in an accident at the age of 23, and the other two would succumb to Huntington's disease, both at the age of 41.
Guthrie learned songs from the traveling farmers, and earned himself the nickname “The Dustbowl Troubadour.” After a while, Guthrie returned to his wife and kids in Texas, but his natural wanderlust soon drove him off again. He then traveled to New York City, where he was embraced by its leftist folk community. Guthrie was later known for performing with the slogan, “This Machine Kills Fascists” displayed on his guitar.
Woody Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children. His second wife helped him with his autobiography, called Bound for Glory. One of his children is American folk musician Arlo Guthrie, who was scared half to death for many years that he might come down with Huntington's disease, as so many in his family had done. Fortunately, Arlo Guthrie escaped the disease that had killed his father, his aunt, his grandmother, two of his half-sisters, and probably other family members as well.
By the time Woody Guthrie reached his forties, his health was in serious decline. His second wife divorced him for his erratic behavior, which she feared might be from schizophrenia or alcoholism, and therefore a danger to their children. Nothing much was known of Huntington's disease back then. Woody Guthrie was the man who put a face on the disease.
After his second divorce, Guthrie went alone to California. As his health continued to get worse, he met and married his third wife. They had one child. However, she soon filed for divorce, citing the strain of having to take care of him.
After his third wife divorced him, his second wife, Marjorie, reentered his life and cared for him until his death. At first, she visited him on Sundays. Then he was moved to a hospital nearer to the family home.
After his death, Marjorie founded the Huntington's Disease Society of America.