Sharon Isaak
September 27, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Woody Guthrie wasn’t much of a singer. He knew his flat, raspy voice didn’t sound ”like dew dripping off the petals of the morning violet,” as he put it. ”I had rather sound like the ashcans of the early morning,” he said, ”like the cab drivers cursing at one another, like the longshoremen yelling, like the cowhands whooping, and like the lone wolf barking.”

Yet Woody Guthrie’s whoops and barks came to define American folk music. His songs (”This Land Is Your Land,” ”Do-Re-Mi,” ”Pretty Boy Floyd”) influenced hundreds of performers, from Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. In more than 1,000 compositions in the 1930s and ’40s, the lanky, bushy-haired man with the big guitar raised his ashcan of a voice in powerful paeans to the underprivileged, the oppressed, the downtrodden.

His message came from the heart, for Guthrie knew the downside of life all too well. Born in Okemah, Okla., in 1912, he saw his father wiped out financially by the Depression. His sister perished in an oil stove explosion. His mother died in an insane asylum of Huntington’s chorea, the same hereditary disease that would claim his own life on Oct. 3, 1967, after more than a decade of hospitalization.

Despite the tragedies in his life and his identification with the homeless and poor, Guthrie was essentially an optimistic lyricist who celebrated America and the goodness of its people. For many, ”This Land Is Your Land” became America’s second national anthem.

And despite himself, Guthrie became America’s national balladeer, a man of the masses who was uncomfortable in the limelight. As his folksinging son, Arlo (”Alice’s Restaurant”), said when his dad was inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, ”I am fairly sure that if my father had been alive today, this is the one place he would not be.”


TIME CAPSULE
Oct. 3, 1967

Stars shone brightly that season: The Carol Burnett Show, The Jerry Lewis Show, and The Danny Thomas Hour all made their TV debuts. Sally Field promoted good habits in The Flying Nun. The Box Tops were pop tops with ”The Letter,” and Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement was the book to read.

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